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  • Is Your Certificate of Authenticity

    Worth the Paper It's Printed On?

    Related Topic: Art Provenance: What It Is and How to Verify It

    Are you an artist who wants to include COAs with your art? Are you a collector who has questions about a COA? I regularly consult about all aspects of COAs. Email me at or give me a call at 415.931.7875 to make an appointment.


    Q: Should a collector get a certificate of authenticity (COA) when he buys a piece of art? Or should the certificate be sent separately after buying the art? Who generates these certificates and what makes them valid? The reason I'm asking is that I bought two limited edition prints from an online art gallery and I expected that the gallery would provide certificates of authenticity with the art. In both cases, they shipped the art but no certificates. The gallery said they would mail certificates to me, but I have yet to receive them. So please help me understand certificates of authenticity.

    A: To begin with, you really have to understand what a legitimate Certificate of Authenticity or COA consists of because plenty of problem COAs are floating around out there, especially at online auctions like eBay. Unless a certificate of authenticity originates from and is signed by either the artist who created the art, the publisher of the art (in the case of limited editions), a confirmed established dealer or agent of the artist (not a casual third party or reseller), or an acknowledged expert on the artist, that certificate is pretty much meaningless. A legitimate COA must contain specific details about the art such as what the medium is (painting, sculpture, digital print, etc.), the name of the artist or publisher (or both), the art's exact title, dimensions, details of the edition size if it is a limited edition, and when applicable, the names of reference books or other resources that contain either specific or related information about either that work of art or the artist who produced it. The title and qualifications of the individual or entity that authored the certificate should also be included, as well as their contact information, and both contact information and qualifications must be verifiable.

    A formal certificate of authenticity is not necessarily required to prove that a work of art is genuine. Any valid receipt, bill of sale, or proof of purchase either directly from the artist or from a confirmed and established dealer, reseller, publisher, or agent of the artist will do. An appraisal from a recognized authority on the artist which includes a statement or guarantee of authenticity is also acceptable. Whenever authenticity is at issue, only conclusive statements of authorship from QUALIFIED experts on the art or artist in question are acceptable, not informal statements, opinions or offhand price estimates from people who happen to buy or sell or appraise occasional works by the artist in question.

    You can never be too careful here. Certificates of authenticity can be problematic; some are just plain worthless and some even fraudulent. Unfortunately, most people believe that art with a COA is automatically genuine, but that is absolutely not the case. To begin with, no laws govern who is or is not qualified to write certificates of authenticity except in rare instances. Nor is there any standardization with respect to what types of statements, information or documentation a COA must include. In other words, anyone can write a COA whether they're qualified to or not. As if that's not bad enough, unscrupulous sellers sometimes forge official looking certificates of authenticity and use them to either sell outright fakes or to misrepresent existing works of art as being more important or valuable than they actually are. And to make matters even worse, meaningless or bogus COA's have been issued for decades, so don't automatically assume that a COA dated 1955, for example, is genuine simply because it's old.

    Your particular situation is troublesome because the seller says the art has certificates of authenticity, but has neither shown them nor sent them. At this point, trying to get your money back is probably the wisest course of action, and from now on, make sure you see all information a seller claims to have BEFORE buying the art. Keep in mind that if a work of art supposedly comes with a certificate of authenticity, not only should you be able to inspect it ahead of time and read and review and corroborate the full text, but it should also accompany the art when you receive it. Never simply accept a seller's claims as true without first seeing the evidence.

    Below are some additional pointers to keep in mind when you are told that a work of art has a certificate of authenticity:

    * First and foremost: Always see read, understand, and substantiate the full text of any certificate of authenticity BEFORE you buy the art.

    * All certificates of authenticity must be original documents, hand-signed by the authenticators-- NOT photocopies. Unscrupulous sellers have been known to take legitimate certificates, doctor them in various ways, photocopy them, and then use them to "authenticate" works of art that they were never intended to authenticate.

    * A legitimate certificate of authenticity must fully and accurately describe the work of art which it is authenticating, including but not limited to size, medium (painting, watercolor, limited edition print, etc.), date, title, edition size and so on. There should be no doubt that the COA describes one and only one work of art-- the one you are considering buying.

    * If the art is for sale online, request and review the complete COA and not just a portion of it. Either have the seller scan or FAX it to you or email clear, legible, and complete digital images.

    * Any conditional statements found in a certificate of authenticity such as "in our considered opinion..." or "we believe that..." are warning signs that at best, the art is only attributed to the artist (which is not a COA) and at worst, that the art may a forgery. The only valid COA is one stating conclusively that the art is by the artist whose signature it bears.

    * A valid certificate of authenticity should contain verifiable documented proof or evidence of why the art is genuine.

    * If you have any questions about a certificate of authenticity, contact the individual who authored it and get the answers BEFORE you buy the art.

    * When the contact information on a certificate of authenticity is no longer valid or is out-of-date, contact a current authority or expert on the artist. If however, the certificate was authored by a legitimate authority on the artist (living or otherwise), it is very likely adequate proof that the art is genuine no matter how long ago it was written.

    * A statement that a work of art is genuine is NOT valid proof of authenticity unless made by an established and respected authority on the artist. That authority's qualifications should be stated on the certificate, or be otherwise easily accessible and verifiable.

    * A certificate with inadequate contact information for the person or company making the statements, or with only an unidentifiable or illegible signature is not valid. Illegible signatures or incomplete contact information are not acceptable. The source of a COA must be traceable.

    * Certificates for art by famous artists such as Warhol, Picasso, Chagall, and Miro should include the exact titles of the art, names of reference books that list the art, dates the art was produced, names of publishers (for limited editions), edition sizes (for limited editions), and exact dimensions of the art. Also good to have are names of previous owners, names of dealers or galleries that have sold the art, information about auctions where the art was sold, and any other relevant information that speaks to the art's history and authenticity.

    * ALL limited edition prints by Warhol, Picasso, Chagall, Miro, and many other well-known artists are documented in books called catalogues raisonne. If a catalogue raisonne exists for an artist, the corresponding catalogue number or entry for the work art in question MUST be noted on the certificate of authenticity.

    * Anytime a certificate of authenticity does not satisfy all of the above requirements, consider yourself at risk if you buy the art.

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