At one of my antiques appraisal master classes, a woman brought me a framed print to evaluate. The framed color lithograph print had a Certificate of Authenticity glued to the back of the frame. The piece was framed circa 1940s-1950s and the work was misrepresented by the formal-looking document on the verso.
Here’s how it reads:
The print is by Bartlett. Here framed is an old and original work and was published circa 1840. It is hand colored in the old style. It should be carefully preserved and valued as an original print.
Signed: Paul B., Charlottesville, VA
In the post war era, there was an active movement in the art and antiques world to purchase works of art that were accompanied by COAs or Certificates of Authenticity. In art dealerships, antique shops, and commercial art galleries, COAs were a fad and that fad has not ceased over the years. The intention is good but often times the outcome is less so. Some of these prestigious looking labels started popping up everywhere by the mid-20th century. By today’s standards, they represent some information united with a marketing ploy. Some of these certificates represent an attempt to get the buyer to purchase an item based solely on a statement made by an unknown expert or a seller who has some information about the piece but the source of that information is unknown. In short, a Certificate of Authenticity tries to coerce one into buying a work of art on emotion. While we all like expert confirmation of our purchases, we have to be sure that this “expert” information is credible.
Let’s decipher a typical COA line by line.
“Certificate of Authenticity”:
The phrase Certificate of Authenticity is printed in a font (print style) that reminds us of a diploma or degree. It gives the feeling that it is important based only on the words and the printing.
First of all, this piece is a commercial lithograph produced in the early years of the 1920s. The term “print” is used as an umbrella term to describe all types of printing processes where an image is transferred to paper or reproduced in large numbers. For instance, there are various types of prints including serigraphs, linocuts, engravings, drypoints, silkscreens, etchings, lithographs, and the list goes on. It is common for someone to call a reproduction or a picture of an image — even a cheap poster — a print. That is not incorrect but again, there are many types of prints so being specific on a COA is best. The all-important certificate of authenticity is merely stating that the work of art is one of many different things, all of which are basically some kind of image on paper.
The phrase “By Bartlett” demonstrates that the work is signed by an artist named Bartlett. The Certificate of Authenticity does not tell the viewer who Bartlett is or if this Bartlett person has a first name or if he or she is an artist of any note. To investigate further, I quickly researched artists named Bartlett, I found no less than 75 artists that could have produced this print in either the 19th or 20th centuries with that same name. There were many more Bartlett’s who were artists active in the centuries prior to the 19th century. The certificate has basically told us nothing about the artist.
Let’s review. So far, this Certificate of Authenticity, complete with fancy script, has informed us that we have a work of art that can be one of many different types of images that was produced by an artist who can be one of 75 different people.
In Part II of this article, I will shed light on the information provided about terms such as original, preserved, and valued. You’ll never look at a vintage COA on a piece of artwork the same way again.