Certificates of authenticity: What they are and why you need them.

I was asked to write this blog post by a very dear Hungarian friend. She wanted to know more about them and how best to go about getting them for her own artwork. 

So, what are they?

A certificate of authenticity is a document which proves that your work is genuine. If you have even seen the BBC TV programme Fake or Fortune you will know that Antiques Roadshow presenter Fiona Bruce and art dealer/author Philip Mould OBE, along with, no doubt a team of other people, try to figure out if a particular work of art is the genuine article. If so, this enables the owner to sell on the artwork knowing that its provenance is proven and that the work was produced by the artist and is not a copy.

So, is it something you should provide for your work, given that you are alive (you must be to be reading this blog) and you are not at the “selling your work for thousands” stage? Well, yes and no. If you know that you have no intention of even promoting yourself and your work and you would prefer it to stay in the family, just make sure that you sign it and date it on the back. See my previous blog about signing your artwork.

If, however, you are an aspiring, emerging or professional artist who wants to be known for your work, the sooner you start the better, really. Having this certificate in place shows that you are a serious artist who plans to stick around and will also give potential clients peace of mind.

So, what do you need to do to get these certificates? Well you could go to a printer and get them to produce them for you and, no doubt, pay a fair bit for the privilege or you can do it yourself at home.

The fact that you are reading this blog implies that you have a computer and will probably have access to a printer, too. So, let’s start with a do-it-yourself variety to begin with.

At the very top of the document you need to have your name printed. For the next  pieces of information you can either print out the details of each piece onto the certificate or you can set it up as a skeleton or template-style document which you fill in by hand. It does look better if it is all done on your computer, though.

An ideal certificate will contain the following details:

1 Your Name
2 Title of the work
3 Medium
4 Dimensions of the work
5 Edition number if relevant
6 Special instructions if relevant (I put instructions on caring for your artwork in an envelope stapled to the back of the frame)
7 Date the work was completed
8 A thumbnail or passport size photo of the artwork.
9 Folio Number
10 Your signature
11 Contact details.

Fake certificates (more on these below) rarely include a way for purchasers to contact either the artist or the gallery who represented them for the sale. If you are making a private sale have your email address, website and phone number on the certificate. If you are being represented by a gallery they are never keen that purchasers can contact you directly (for understandable reasons) but you could still have just your website address in small writing on the very bottom of the certificate and possibly get away with it.

You should be keeping a record of all your artworks (see my earlier blogs about record keeping), and so will have allocated each of them a folio number. By having this kind of record of your piece and knowing where you sold it, you are producing a full record of where your work is going.

Every piece of artwork you prepare for sale should have a certificate attached as part of your setup. There are a few ways you can handle this and producing batch copies of the certificate can make your life a little easier.

If you are an artist who has all your work framed and behind glass having a certificate attached to the back of the piece and letting the purchaser know that there is a copy inside the frame, is a good idea.

I would also tend to either attach a copy to the back of the framed work or just have it to hand and give it to the purchaser, along with an invoice, when you sell it.

If you work on canvas or board, you can attach a copy directly to the back of the work and keep a copy to go with the invoice.

A sculpture can often have the certificate attached to the base and if the work is to be shown outside a laminated version might be a good idea, too.

You want to make it as easy as possible for your purchaser to have all the information about the work so that they feel confident they are dealing with someone who knows what they are doing. This tends to ease the transaction process, whether the work is yours or you are selling it on. The provenance is provable.

We do, however, live in a digital world where forgery occurs all too often, so having a document like this is a form of protection. When your clients know that you provide this type of documentation they will know when they are being sold forgeries.

Just last week I found out that a friend of mine has had a huge number of pieces of her artwork stolen by a counterfeit art dealer in China. Not only are they reproducing and selling their version of her work but have also turned it into “paint by numbers” kits and are using the images on cushions and bags. There is nothing she can do to stop these people and she is losing out on thousands of pounds of income.  She will now be watermarking all her images to try and protect her newer works.

As you build your client base, your buyers will get to know that you are taking great care of your work. They will also learn not to trust certificates which are lacking or damaged in any way.  

Many fake documents have no contact details for the person selling the item or if theydo, they’re either incorrect or misleading. A buyer should also never accept an incomplete or photocopied certificate or illegible signatures or information in general.

These certificates have over the last century, allowed works of art to be positioned as part of an artist’s brand and as such having a certificate also serves as a legal document.

If you don’t feel ready to deal with all this yourself you can ask your gallery to act for you and they will provide one of their own certificates, which will carry their contact details, but it should also be signed by you. There are some galleries who insist on signing certificates on your behalf so don’t forget to sign your artwork somewhere, either the front or back of the work, before you hand it over to them.

The fun part of all this, as you will appreciate if you have ever watched Fake or Fortune, is that you are providing the history of an artwork so that a story about how and where it has travelled – over time, through who’s hands, around the world etc. – can be told.

Doubtless you will not be here to unravel that story in 100 years’ time, but someone else will have the joy of discovering all about you and your work and I think that is just fun.

This is also regarded as the secondary art market. This is where works have been bought and sold, possibly many times and/or in different countries. If you have provided all the relevant information in your certificate when you first make your work, a gallery or auction house will find it easier to provide the provenance needed to sell on your work. Being able to trace the piece right back to your studio is perfect.

Here is a version I made quickly using Word. Probably not the best application to use but the one most of us have.

5 Replies to “Certificates of authenticity: What they are and why you need them.”

  1. Thank you for talking about certificates! I used to give them with every sale, but I stopped doing them, it was just more work, maybe it’s time to think about it again!

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      1. Great idea, I actually do that, more to remind myself what I named the piece! 😂 I’ve also been trying to get used to writing the title and date on the back of paintings on paper in pencil! Thanks for sharing all your valuable tips!🙏

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  2. I thought about that with my poetry. But I doubt I’d ever sell any of it or whatever.

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