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.)
Buy / Acquire only original works of fine art
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:
- Hand-signed & Numbered: Works must be hand-signed by the artist and numbered in limited editions. As an example of this, the vast majority of Warhol prints – while among the most collected in the world – are all photo-mechanically reproduced and are not classically considered original serigraphs or lithographs. But because this is the only way Warhol worked, these pieces are considered original works, even though they technically are not. We understand this is a confusing distinction to make and I am happy to be contacted on a piece-by-piece basis to explain the level of involvement by the artist with each work.
- Catalogue Raisonné Information & Documentation: Be sure that the print corresponds to the printed documentation in a catalogue raisonné of the artist's, publisher's, or printer’s work. Artists did not make an original work in 3 different sizes, for example; only 1 size of an original work is typically produced. A good, thorough catalogue raisonné will tell you the technique of manufacture, size of image, size of the printed sheet, and the edition size.There is a minor caviot to this: some areas of printmaking are not documented properly or thoroughly and mistakes can be found in those catalogues that do exist. This is relatively rare and can be explained in other ways.
- Lifetime Impressions vs. Re-Strikes: A print produced during an artist’s lifetime will have certain qualities and characteristics that are documented in the artist’s catalogue raisonnés. Re-strikes, later impressions, or posthumous works fall in another category. These works are usually printed from original plates. However, the artist did not authorize their creation. They may have been authorized by the artist’s estate but their value is diminished over that of an original work pulled under the artist’s direction and supervision during his lifetime. Both are collectable, but the values will vary greatly.
- Certificates of Authenticity (COAs): Certificates for graphic works are in general, worth the paper they are printed on; they are only as good as the company who issues them. Having said that, certain COAs are better than others and they should only contain factual information, verifiable by outside sources.
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):
- The name of the artist
- Information about any artist's signature appearing on the multiple, such as whether the artist signed it personally or whether it was stamped by the artist’s estate, or by some other source.
- A description of the medium or process used in producing the multiple such as etching, engraving, lithographic, serigraphic, Giclee or a particular method or material used in any photographic developing processes.
- A statement about any photomechanical, photographic, or surmoulage (for sculpture) process used to create a multiple of an image produced in a different medium, for a purpose other than the creation of the multiple being described, and a statement of the respective mediums.
- If a photomechanical, photographic or surmoulage process was used, and the multiple is not signed, a statement about whether the artist authorized or approved in writing creation of the multiple or the edition.
- Information about whether the artist was deceased at the time the master was made which produced the multiple.
- Information about whether it is a "posthumous" multiple, that is, where the master was created during the life of the artist but the multiple was produced after the artist’s death.
- If it is a second or later edition of multiples made from a master that produced a prior limited edition, or if the master for this edition was made from a print or master that was made from a prior multiple, this shall be stated. In addition, the total number of multiples, including proofs, of all other editions produced from that master must be stated.
- The year, or approximate year, the multiple was produced shall be stated, if the multiple was created after 1949. For multiples produced prior to 1950, the certificate must state the year, approximate year or period when the master was made and when that particular multiple was produced.
- Information about whether the edition is being offered as a limited edition, and if so: (i) the authorized maximum number of signed or numbered impressions or both, in the edition; (ii) the authorized maximum number of unsigned or unnumbered impressions, or both, in the edition; (iii) the authorized maximum number of artist’s, publisher’s or other proofs, if any, outside of the regular edition; and (iv) the total size of the edition.
- Whether or not the master has been destroyed, effaced, altered, defaced, or canceled after the current edition. If for example the master screens have been destroyed, then the atelier cannot make any additional images more of that image.
- If the multiple is part of a limited edition that was printed after January 1, 1983, that statement of the size of the limited edition also constitutes an express warranty that no additional multiples of the same image, including proofs, have been produced in this or in any other limited edition.
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.
Proactive Research & Due Diligence
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.)
Quality in a Work of Art
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.