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This month's topic...

Should I buy only works that are (hand) signed?

Artists' personal Signatures on a work of art (especially the graphic arts) are regarded as a premium and have always been greatly sought after by collectors. There can be up to a 400% difference in the price of a signed, versus unsigned, graphic. In an ideal world, of course, the true focus of appreciation would be the work of art itself. But back to the real world…

The earliest prints were not signed at all. In the mid 15C the artist's initials were formed into a monogram which was incorporated into the woodcut or engraving as a mirror image. The creation of the printing plate was a job fulfilled by highly skilled craftsman -- most prints were the result of a collaboration of both artist and engraver, and therefore bore two names as acknowledgement. At the bottom left is the name of the painter or draftsman, followed by the Latin PINXIT (PINX.) or DELINEAVIT (DEL) or INVENTIT (INV.) meaning respectively: "he painted it " or "he drew it" or "it's his concept". The engraver's name appeared on the lower right, followed by SCULPSIT (SC) or INCISIT (SCULPS. or SC., and INC.) meaning "he engraved it", or FECIT, "he made it" or IMPRESSIT (IMP), "he printed it". These "signatures", virtually part of the print image itself, are said to be SIGNED IN THE PLATE or SIGNED IN THE BLOCK.

Many artists from Duerer to Picasso identified their works and protected their copyright by "signing" directly in the plate. This convention does not affect the price of works printed before the 1930's, but most certainly does affect all printed works thereafter when the convention of signing became a financial cash cow. In the 1960's Picasso, for instance, retroactively hand-signed several hundred pieces from his 1930's "Suite Voillard" series to enhance their value.

William Hogarth (1697-1764) was the first to capitalize on the commercial value of the HAND-SIGNED print. Simply by autographing his print he was able to charge one Guinea more, and the graphic artist hasn't looked back since. James McNeil Whistler (1834-1930) was the first to regularly “sign” his prints with his distinctive butterfly hieroglyph. Traditionally, prints on paper are signed in pencil because lead (carbon) does not fade, discolor or bleed, as inks are prone to do over time. Also, important in restoration processes, carbon in lead does not wash off in water and is impervious to many chemical solutions. The pressure points left in the paper by a graphite signature can serve also a sort of a forensic “DNA”: the automatic pressure traces can serve the expert's process of signature validation.

HAND SIGNING conventionally denotes the artist's personal approval of the quality and authenticity of the work before its release into the world of commerce. That said, there does exist a "hierarchy" in the collectors' world of limited edition prints. For instance, the identical lithographed image by Miro, UNSIGNED, will not command as high a price as that which is only INITIALLED with his swashbuckling "M", which in turn will go for less than one with Miro's full and proper SIGNATURE. Commanding an even greater price would be Miro's signature followed by a personal DEDICATION, particularly if the recipient is himself famous or otherwise significant in the artist's life.

After an artist has died, provision can be made for continuing the run of editions in progress by using a legally certified ESTATE SIGNATURE stamp applied either manually or electronically (laser) in the usual signing corner under very strictly monitored power of attorney. This procedure validates the work, which is still technically an "original" graphic as defined by the 1963 UNESCO CONVENTION .

While an ESTATE SIGNATURE serves as a quality and authenticity guarantee, it is by no means as "valuable" in collectors' terms as a personally signed work. However, there is a major CAUTION: sometimes these duplicated autographs, when laser printed, are astoundingly difficult to distinguish from the artist's original hand signature (although, of course, it would appear as if done in ink rather than in conventional pencil). When in doubt, check under a magnifying glass for either telltale half-tone dots, or the smudge of a stamp, or angle the paper under a raking light to check for the presence of pressure points which hand-signing usually leaves behind.

The Estate Signature convention can also allow for “deathbed anomalies”. When Marino Marini was too ill to sign his very last editions in full, his hand-signed abbreviated “MM” for collectors is regarded as inherently complete as his full signature. Also valid to a lesser (collectible) degree is the hand-signature of the surviving spouse (e.g. Rene Magritte's wife who signed her husband's works still in the printing process after his unexpected death).

A signature is valid regardless of where it actually appears on the work. Many works on canvas are purposefully hand-signed only au verso, which some collectors mistakenly regard as a disadvantage.

It is true that it is important to keep all the above signature conventions in mind when purchasing any artwork, especially where purpose is investment and absolute identification. However let's not forget that the limited edition print or unique work on canvas, with or without the signature in any form, is what the final focus should be all about: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

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