Years ago as I was browsing classified ads on the Internet I came across signed Limited Edition Lithographs and Serigraphs by famous artists such as Mark Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and other well-known names. They were all numbered, titled and signed by hand by the artists themselves, or so the ad implied. This caught my interest because they looked legitimate, they all came along with a Certificate of Authenticity, and above all that they all were well under $50.00 CAD. What a find! I thought. At the same time I then remembered reading years earlier that Pablo Picasso’s signature was worth so much during his time that people would never cash his signed bank checks and store them instead just for the value of his signature. In this ad, there was no mention of who the issuer or who the dealer was, just a reply email address. I was able to detect some barely legible small print on the photos enough to finally be able to make the name of the issuer. I called them and inquired about the prints and they further gave me a larger list of artists. I mentioned my “small” concern that this was too good to be true, that how could they manage to have such collection of signed Limited Edition prints without there being some catch, especially at such low price? They assured me all was legitimate and that for my peace of mind and assurance they all came with a Certificate of Authenticity. Under further investigation, I found there were complaints about these prints and the obvious illegitimacy of such “authentic” prints.
It is well known and documented so many cases of forgery in the art world. From large scale frauds worth millions of dollars to smaller but high volume fraud worth $50.00 CAD or less a piece. I imagine many of these cases must be mistakes caused by lack of knowledge, and that none of these cases were intentional. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Buyers can only trust the word of their gallery, and often receiving a “legitimate” Certificate of Authenticity for their peace of mind. After all, it is a Certificate that certifies the legitimacy of the print or piece of art a collector is buying, right? Not always because a COA is a valuable as the word or assurance of the dealer issuing the COA. Why? Because it is the dealer himself generating this piece of paper so really, what is the difference?
As I initiate my journey in the world of Art dealing I have asked my painters about COA’s, thinking that a COA issued by the artist is far more valuable as a COA issued by my gallery. I was surprised at their surprise for such request. They have never issued a COA, neither to direct buyers, nor to galleries they deal with. Ok…what about Inuit co-ops and agencies I also work with? Same thing, they don’t issue COAs, after all, “… all prints are signed and each comes with their official print-house chop…”. So then … when you receive a COA, who is issuing it and how does it really legitimize the piece of art you are buying? My advice to all collectors and enthusiasts is to do as you would do with any other purchase, research it. Compare signatures, compare chop, compare stamps, compare style and yes, you still need to rely and trust your art advisor or your art dealer. A COA may give you a sense of assurance or protection, but know that the paper you are receiving does not cast authenticity upon the piece of art you are buying, unless perhaps issued by the artist himself or herself, which in turn might also as difficult to prove other than trust that the COA is also authentic. The piece of art you are buying is authentic or is not, with or without a COA. Knowing your art dealer works directly with artists and authorized art distributors is your most reassuring indication of authenticity of the piece you are acquiring. For other artworks acquired via second market, you do rely on the knowledge and experience of your art dealer as not often is simple to proof provenance other than the word of previous vendors or collectors.
Note: This blog post has been modified due to the unknown details of an active legal court case, Kevin Hearn Vs. Joseph B. McLeod and Maslak McLeod Gallery Inc. The writer of this post remains neutral and is not engaged in discussions or opinions in relation to this or related court cases. The original content of this post is not to be interpreted as such.