Onlookers, enthusiasts, and even novice collectors sometimes downplay the importance of artist signatures since almost every painting, print, or sculpture has them. In truth, artist signatures contributed significantly to our art history and market function. A signature is only one piece of a much larger puzzle, and its absence can either make or break the authenticity and value of an artwork.
Although some artists, for whatever reason, opted not to include their signatures on paintings and other art pieces, almost every noteworthy and prominent individual in history imprinted their signatures on their creations. As a matter of fact, among the golden rules of researching and investing in art is to check if the piece is signed or not, as an artist’s mark can reveal a lot more information than most people might think.
That being said, let us discuss why artist signatures are essential to the way we understand art’s history and the way we manage the art market.
Brief History of Artist Signatures
An artist’s way of adding his or her signature to a masterpiece has been a common practice since ancient times, although it first became prevalent during the early Renaissance. During this period of cultural, political, economic, and artistic rebirth, art production made a shift from the well-established guild system to a magnificent celebration of individual creativity.
The monogram of Albrecht Dürer, a renowned print-maker of the German arts history, is one of the oldest examples of a modern-like case surrounding artist signatures. Not only was Dürer well-known for his printed artwork and hurried sketches, but he was also famed for putting his trademark “AD” on every masterpiece. Dürer even went to court in Venice and Nuremberg in a bid to protect his authorship from the subsequent proliferation of imitated prints labeled after him. Needless to say, he successfully won both cases.
An Artist’s Signature is Part of the Artwork
Having the opportunity to search for hidden signatures might be an art historian’s dream come true, and for excellent reasons. Unveiling concealed elements of an art piece can reveal a wealth of information buried and lost during the passage of time. From Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa eyes to the 2017 discovery of a hidden inscription by Australian Impressionist Tom Roberts, artist signatures can be vaults of information that art historians dream of unlocking.
However, rarely (almost never, really) do such revelations lead down the extreme path of a The Da Vinci Code-like scenario. In reality, perhaps the artist simply left a dedication for whoever receives the finished artwork, or maybe the artist wanted to note the identity of their subject. Whichever the case, decoding an artist’s work is like a true-to-life treasure hunt to art specialists.
Here’s a sample case: While examining the portrait of Louis Abraham by Tom Roberts, there was no signature in sight, according to Christie’s Head of Sale Amanda Fuller. “But as we moved the work around under the light, something caught our eye. We had the work photographed and asked our digital studio to enhance the image, and in doing so, they were able to reveal a dedication from the artist to the sitter, signed and dated, in the background. It was a great moment, as this confirmed our suspicion that the work was indeed painted by Tom Roberts.”
Further, several artists expand signatures with personalized notes to themselves or to others, so inscriptions are widely used to keep a record of time, place, and medium. English painter Ben Nicholson, for example, recorded a plethora of information on the back of his paintings. Not only did the extraordinary Nicholson date, title, and sign his masterpieces in this manner, but he also made thorough lists of the colors he used in his work, as well as included the addresses of where he would be sending the piece.
False Signatures Can Lead to Devastating Events
Signatures can verify well-founded research, but there are instances when a forged signature slips through the cracks and becomes mistaken for the “real deal.” This error can cause an unfortunate chain of events and unintentionally mislead generations of art historians. A falsely authenticated art piece can also end up on an auction, sell for thousands or millions of dollars, and disrupt the entire market.
“Added signatures are a key issue on the market,” says Tom Rooth, Director of the Victorian and British Impressionist Pictures Department at Christie’s. “They tend to fall into one of two camps. Either a painting has been created to imitate an artist’s work, together with a mimicked signature, or someone might add a signature to a picture at a later date, in order to deceive, and increase value — sometimes significantly.”
Rooth also keeps a close eye on artists who have simple or minimal signatures. “Myles Birket Foster was an exceptional watercolorist, but his monogram was very simple. This has made him attractive to forgers who think they can replicate the simple ‘BF’ — although imitating the exceptional hand and brushstrokes of a maestro is significantly harder to get away with, to say the least.”
The Person Entrusted to Study a Masterpiece Matters
If the art historians, appraisers, and other specialists responsible for assessing artist signatures are adept in distinguishing the difference between true and false inscriptions, a forged signature can serve as an asset and help improve the market’s authenticity by enabling a firmer grip over an artist’s work.
The good news is that modern technology, with its UV lights and pigment analysis, is a big help on that front. However, at the end of the day, people built those technologies, and there is still no beating a keen human eye. To maintain the value and desirability of masterpieces, trained specialists who are familiar with prominent artists’ oeuvres and signatures will always be as important as the artists themselves. Here at Biltmore Loan and Jewelry, for example, our art appraisal specialists in Phoenix, AZ are trained and experienced in handling different types of artwork. If you are looking for a professional art appraiser and competitive buyer under one roof, sell your artwork to us.