SIGNATURES on artworks are always considered desirable. Hopefully they are readable or the painting, print or sculpture may be attributed to “annonymous”. On the many occasions that I have given lectures to artist groups or I have known there were a lot of artists in my aucience–such as at the C. M. Russell Auction or the Prix de West and frequently at museums–I have told them to sign their works any way the wish, but then to write their full name and address on the back along with a title, date and, hopefully, some contact information. That way, someone like me or an heir of the collector, can someday pursue research, valuation, insurance and possibly resale. The artist will then get full credit and the art will be appropriately valued.
Do people typically pay more for a work with a recognizably important signature on it? Oh, yes. The role of signatures in prices paid is an indefinable element, but an important one. That’s why so many unsigned paintings or ones with indistinct signatures at some point show up on the market with a clear signature–always of an important artist.
I have seen lots and lots of drawings, watercolors and even a few oils that are signed “Dali” or “Salvador Dali” and I know immediately that the Master never saw them. Are they fakes? Some definitely are. Others may have been the attempt of an amateur to copy an existing Dali work or to create something in the artist’s style and later someone else (dealer?) added the signature. Sometimes, a signature facsimile is just part of a copy, but it’s best to leave it out lest it someday become the basis for a sale of the work as genuine.
Are there many artworks offered for sale with forged signatures? Are there many Rolex watches sold with Timex mechanisms? Should you avoid the widows of Nigerian generals who offer to share a fortune with you?
So what does an innocent, honest person do? First of all, never buy a work of art without a signed money-back guarantee. If you ever have to return the art, be sure to get cash. Don’t settle for credit on another piece in the shop or gallery. You may find yourself in the old fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me dilemma.
It is very difficult to get opinions of authenticity on artworks and on their signatures these days. As I detail in Artful Dodgers: Fraud and Foolishness in the Art Market, more and more artist estates and foundations are getting out of the authentication business. Professional appraisers don’t authenticate explicitly (except for me with Dali), but they do authenticate implicitly by reflecting the way they believe the subject artwork would be treated in the market. They cannot be held responsible for these opinions, however, unless they have made no attempt whatsoever to check the probability that the signature is genuine. That’s negligence.
So what’s the take-home lesson? Well, first of all, a signature does not guarantee authenticity because it may be forged. On an oil painting it’s a good idea to check it with a long-wave ultraviolet light (a gallery should have one) and look to see that the signature does not fluoresce brighter that the surrounding paint. If it does, it was probably added to the painting later.
Secondly, always get that written guarantee so that if you have reason to question the signature or it has been questioned by an appraiser or art authority, you can get a refund.
Third, it’s always a good idea to consult someone with a great deal of experience with the works of the subject artist. For instance, it would be foolish to buy an artwork attributed to Salvador Dali without checking with me. Don’t ever expect that every dealer is going to be truthful with you. It’s just not in the makeup of most, especially if they’re selling online or over the telephone. I always say the artwork must authenticate the signature and that takes knowledgable stylistic analysis.
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