Authenticity, and the myth of the CoA


Before buying a work of art from a dealer I recommend clients ask one question; “What do you collect?” At both the ‘low’ and the ‘high’ end of the art market it is common to see dealers dancing about in front of clients attempting to impress upon them the great importance of a particular painting or artist, but I can assure you that to a great many only one thing is of importance and that is money. It is my experience that most art dealers have a limited interest in art history, know little about artists’ techniques and materials, and virtually nothing about conservation. Naturally, as a professional art dealer – unless you were fortunate enough to have been born into money, as many at the top end of the market were – you are of course in business and need to make a profit. However, a good art dealer will always become more excited talking about the paintings they sell than about the profits they make from selling them, and a sure sign that an art dealer’s passion is profit rather than paintings is their disinterest in collecting and the lack of a personal collection. And before you ask, I collect precisely the sort of paintings I sell; 19th century British oils and watercolours and some early 20th century Post-Impressionism.

These days many of us have become used to buying from ill-informed sellers who know no more about the items they are selling than we do ourselves. That is frustrating enough when you are in B&Q but no-one should settle for such a situation when buying a fine painting.

So, what else should a potential art buyer be looking for when purchasing a painting? I know that an increasing number of buyers are very keen to see their purchases accompanied by a Certificate of Authenticity. In the UK this means that whether they are buying from a gallery in the West End, a fine art show such as Olympia in London, or a part-time picture seller on ebay they believe the presence of a nicely printed and signed CoA to be of great importance, and they are completely and entirely wrong. Unless it is signed by either the artist themselves, their official agent, or an acknowledged expert on the artist that certificate is meaningless. In other words, around 99% of all CoA’s out there are utterly redundant, and with respect to authenticity carry about as much weight as a note from the seller’s mum.

Here’s the truth; a formal Certificate of Authenticity is not necessarily required to prove a work of art is genuine. Any valid receipt, bill of sale or proof of purchase either directly from the artist or from a professional dealer will do – and is infinitely more useful than a so-called ‘certificate’ signed by someone with no more legal authority to authenticate an oil painting than next door’s cat. Ultimately, when authenticity is in question, only a conclusive statement of authorship from a recognised expert on the art or artist in question is acceptable.

The CoA has probably become so important in buyer’s minds because so many of us grow up with an innate respect for official-looking signed documents but bear in mind there are no legal parameters as to who can sign and issue CoA’s. Literally anyone can write a CoA, whether they’re qualified to or not. And these things have been issued for years so just because a CoA is unquestionably old doesn’t mean the work of art it purports to authenticate is genuine. When buying an old oil painting the maxim is the same as when buying any antique; the fact that something has age doesn’t always mean it’s any good, or even ‘right’.

In New York, all auction houses and art galleries are obligated to certify the works they sell to be authentic, which usually means providing certification based upon a consensus of experts in the specific field. In France meanwhile, heirs of an artist are often designated as legal authenticators due to their knowledge of an artist’s work, as well as academics with relevant degrees that have published in the field.

When in doubt the most reliable methods of authenticating a painting are cast iron provenance and technical assessment.  Provenance – or the documented ownership history – typically includes auction, exhibition or gallery labels, comparison with other similar works by the artist, testimony of past owners and agents, a CoA signed by a recognised expert, and any original sales receipts.

As viewers of the BBC television series ‘Fake or Fortune’ will know, where provenance is lacking anyone looking to authenticate a painting’s artistic attribution or age must look to science for assistance. A professional conservation report and/or technological assessment will help determine authenticity through detailed scientific analysis. For instance, the use of Ultraviolet fluorescence which helps determine the presence of over-painting (unnecessary later re-touching) and the chemical analysis of the paint layers which will establish if the pigments used are contemporaneous, and consistent with those used by the artist in question. This method of course requires the owner to have plenty of time on their hands and a not inconsiderable amount of spare cash. That is unless Philip Mould and Fiona Bruce are willing to take on the task for you.