The guide presented below is generally intended for customers who are buying original works of fine art and spending between $10,000 and $250,000. In general, my first piece of advice is to buy well-established, famous-named artists; Old Masters (e.g. Rembrandt, Dürer) and Modern Masters (e.g. Chagall, Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Braque) are certainly sure bets. On the Contemporary side, artists like Calder, Vasarely, and Yvaral are great artists to collect, enjoy, and invest in. (I would include works by Warhol in this list, but his market has become so over-heated that I have some concerns about the sustainability of the doubling and tripling of prices that have occurred on an annual basis over the past 4 or 5 years.)
Differentiating originals from reproductions can be difficult especially when the artistic media used to create an artist’s work has changed so dramatically over the years. An original etching, lithograph, serigraph, and aquatint for example, are easy to differentiate because they do not show a dot matrix (classically associated with reproductions of original works of art).
The challenge today is that many contemporary artists use mass media for reproducing images like off-set lithography, collotypes, and Giclée to reproduce their works. However, this does not necessarily mean that these works are not original works of fine art. The following conditions are necessary in order to be considered original works of fine art:
For older works of art, much of this information remains unknown, especially prior to 1900. In those circumstances, you do your best to answer the questions as truthfully and faithfully as possible. Unique works of art (as opposed to original prints) frequently come with COAs by the designated member(s) of an artist’s family who have the moral right to authenticate a work of art.
For example, if you were buying a Picasso unique work, the only people who have the authority to authenticate those works, are Maya Picasso and Claude Picasso (appointed by the French government). If the work of art was by Marc Chagall, the Comité Chagall is THE only entity that can authenticate a unique original work by Chagall. The problem for those dealing in graphic works is that most experts will not authenticate them (they only deal with unique originals).
Please find the following excerpt on COA requirements as stated by the State of California Civil Code 1744 (as of 2003):
Pricing is, on a retail basis, based on a gallery’s overhead costs, including its location, sales commissions, etc.; frequently pricing will entail a 50%-100% mark-up. I advise collectors to inquire about galleries’ pricing methods what factors go into the pricing of their inventory. That question alone, if it goes unanswered in a satisfactory manner, should give you an indication of the establishment’s legitimacy and customer service. (As an aside, if you think you can find an original hand-signed work by a prominent artist like Chagall or Picasso for less than $5,000 you are probably buying a fake or a reproduction with a photo-mechanical signature. There’s no such thing has an authentic, hand-signed Chagall for $399.99. However, there can be major price variations where an original Chagall might be $10,000 in one gallery and $25,000 in another – all this varies based on the information provided above.)
How do you know an artist really hand-signed a work? The artist’s birth/date dates should be listed on any COA so that you know the real Pablo Picasso (born 1881; died 1973) really signed it, as opposed to a Pablo Picasso in Chicago, IL who is still alive. It is important that the artist’s dates be present to make this distinction very clear.
For major artists, there are frequently comparative catalogues and signature registries where you can find comparable signatures to help gain confidence that the artist truly signed the work. This information should also be contained in the catalogue raisonné, the best of which should tell you if there are unsigned impressions and if so, how many.
Do your best to educate yourself about an artist’s work. Speak to the gallery owner directly and ask these questions to make sure you feel confident about your acquisition. A professional dealer will allow for returns, exchanges, and guarantee the work of art’s authenticity for the lifetime of your ownership of that work. Find a good glossary of terminology to research and understand precisely the terms that are involved in the description of the artist’s work. (Masterworks Fine Art, Inc. offers an abbreviated glossary of art terms.)
Original works of fine art are hand-made. Because of this, there is variation in the quality of impression. Due to the ravages of time, there are variations in color saturation and condition. A print that has a tear across the middle of it is clearly going to be worth less than a print with full margins and in flawless condition. Brilliant, crisp impressions will sell more successfully than dull, worn impressions. The price ranges can be enormous; for example, an early impression of a Rembrandt print might be priced at $100,000. A later, poorer impression could be $7,000. What makes the difference is a good, strong knowledge of connoisseurship and connoisseurship criteria.
This is a critical aspect in acquiring any work of art. Connoisseurship has to do with the assessment and understanding of quality in an original work of fine art. Connoisseurship will always determine the work with the greatest value – which will be the most iconic image by a specific artist. Connoisseurship in a work of art will vary from artist to artist. With Chagall, for example, it has to do with solely the amount of color saturation and Chagall-like imagery. With Picasso, in contrast, connoisseurship will depend on the graphic qualities of the image and the brilliancy with which he is able to convey a message in a relatively small number of strokes.
I often reference and artwork’s “curb effect,” or its ability to pulls you in from across the room, allowing you to distinctly tell who the work has been created by. A Picasso that looks like a geometric work of art by Vasarely is not ever going to be as desirable or collectable as a Picasso of a mother holding a child from the Blue Period. In other words, historically, the most collectable and valuable works of art by major artists, are works that scream they are works by those artists.
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