Home Magazine A Word on the Authenticity of an Artwork

In November 2017, the art world was shook by a particular newspaper headline: Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sells for $450 million, becoming the most expensive artwork ever! Shortly after, as expected, speculations on whether the painting was actually produced by the legendary artist began, with some experts reportedly not being able to confirm its authenticity. Beginning of 2018, we had an entire Amedeo Modigliani exhibition in Genoa shut down, as suspicions about 20 out of 30 works in it being fake were deemed true - only one work on view was proven not to be a forgery, as it had the seal of authenticity given by the Italian government. 

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As you might have noticed, there’s an important word that was used in both of these cases - authenticity. It is a term we often encounter in connection with forgery and plagiarism, and not just in the case of artworks. Although the gradual expansion of their market in the past 100 years certainly turned the art business into a trading one, hence shedding more light on the matter, fake paintings, sculptures and drawings have been around for centuries. Some of them, as it might turn out, end up in auctions nowadays, prompting art buyers to be very careful about making their purchases. But how does one know if an artwork is what one thinks it is, if a masterpiece really is a piece created by a master? Take a glance at #KoonessMagazine Market Area, for all the news about contemporary art investments...

The term “authenticity” was first used by art critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. He argues that an authentic work of art is an original one, one that has “a unique existence in the place it happens to be”; therefore, a reproduction of it wouldn’t be authentic, as the conditions of the two pieces are not the same. Throughout the history of art, people have been forging artworks mostly for financial gain, replicating a famous artist’s style and tampering with the documentation that accompanies their “work”. Take for instance Han van Meegeren, a Dutch portrait painter who, after failing to succeed with his own art, started created fake Vermeers, but who also successfully sold a forgery to the Nazi Reichmarschall Hermann Göring and was considered a hero for it. Another example is Elmyr de Hory, who produced over 1000 forgeries among also ones very much resembling Modigliani…

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While being experienced and well-informed surely helps in recognizing these works for what they really are, certain legal procedures and ways of doing must be implemented in order to prevent fraud and general misconception. In the art world of today, that we couldn’t exactly call a transparent one, there nevertheless exists a way for collectors and sellers alike to be sure where a work of art comes from (also known as artwork provenance, another important term), who exactly made it, and when. This is typically done though a document called the certificate of authenticity.



What is a Certificate of Authenticity?

The Certificate of Authenticity, or COA, is an important “piece of paper” in the art trade, as it contains valuable information about an artwork, some of which I’ve just cited above: its full title, who made it, when, in what medium and with what technique, edition number (if applicable - mostly used for limited edition prints, for example), its dimensions, as well as correct information and truthful signature of the person claiming authenticity, whether its the author or someone else (the artist’s estate or an appointed expert, perhaps). Statements and notes should be written in clear, straightforward language, as to avoid any sort of confusion and misleading. If all of the items from this list can be found in a COA, it means that it is a proper one - most likely anyway, because one would still need to check whether everything stated on it is valid.

Essential to the artist as it is to the collector, the certificate should always come with its artwork as well - meaning that the second sign of a shady transaction should be the lack of a COA. Apart from providing proof of provenance, the certificate also stands as a sales receipt, and a sort of a contract between the buyer and the seller.

And so, if not for moral reasons, having a COA is good because it also greatly increases an artwork’s value on the market, and establishes credibility and trust between art professionals for years to come.

Certificates like these can, and should, also be used to compare information with artists’ catalogue raisonné. These represent a catalog, a comprehensive book that puts together all known artworks by an artist, covering either their entire oeuvre or focusing on a particular medium they extensively worked in. In any case, some COAs (often those belonging to more famous names) commonly include a catalogue raisonné reference number of an artwork, for further confirmation of its genuineness.


A Certificate of Authenticity


How to Create a COA and How to Trust Someone Else’s

Writing a certificate of authenticity from scratch is something that artists usually do themselves, once they create a work and especially if they intent to sell it. Following existing templates, they would make unique physical or digital documents. Of course, forging a certificate of authenticity is even simpler than faking an artwork, so this is yet another thing to be aware of, in particular when buying art online. This should definitely not discourage you from shopping on the web, but a little more precaution than usual is in order.

As we speak, in 2019, we don’t have a single authority over the certificates. The digital world, however, promises a more secure way of producing genuine COAs, through decentralized databases provided by the blockchain technology. Serving as digital ledgers, these platforms would contain timestamped documents that could not be replicated in any way, thus affirming an artwork’s ownership, provenance, authenticity and whatever else for good.

The problem? While the idea is a good one, it is not offered by one company only; I can think of at least three off the top of my head at the moment. Each of them presents itself as “THE database of all COAs”. A unified platform like one of these could solve many problems of the art trade and inventory management, so naturally there is a big competition on the market as we speak. Other than these few private equities, no “official” body has shown interest in dealing with the issue.

If you find yourself with a COA you wish to check out, one of these websites might just be in charge of it, and by all means you should get in touch with them. If not, paying attention to details is crucial, as stated above - a COA must exist and it must include *all* of the necessary information. The people who can provide further advice surely are fellow collectors, art dealers, gallery owners, curators, even artists or their estates, foundations or trusts. In the end, buying directly from them, or from a trusted gallery or an auction house might be your safest bet, as they do a thorough check-up beforehand, to make sure their customers get what they sign up for.


Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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