Certificates of Authenticity: A Complete How-To Guide for Galleries
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Certificates of Authenticity: A Complete How-To Guide for Galleries

By Team ARTERNAL

When it comes to the buying and selling of art there is usually documentation that accompanies the artwork. Documentation that helps authenticate the artwork and ensure the purchase is safe for all parties. One of these important documents is a certificate of authenticity (COA).

Read our guide for all you need to know about certificates of authenticity when buying and selling artwork.

What is a Certificate of Authenticity (COA)? 

When you think of purchasing a brand name item like a car, clothing, or furniture, there is a level of quality and assurance associated with that particular brand. A certificate of authenticity works similarly for artwork. It’s a document that authenticates the work and confirms that it is an original work created by the artist.

Typically, you may see a sales receipt from a respective gallery or dealer used as a document of authenticity. It’s important to file the certificate of authenticity document away when documenting your art collection. 

Why Is a Certificate of Authenticity Important and Why You Need a COA?

Certificates of authenticity have become especially important in light of art fraud and concerns about authenticity in the art world. ARTtrust describes this issue well stating

“The global art market today is worth billions of dollars, with countless transactions taking place every day. Meanwhile, art authentication has been a challenge for centuries and possibly even millennia. Ever since people started creating art for sale, the issue of authenticity became critical to instill buyer-confidence and guarantee that an artist’s work is treated properly.”

In addition to authentication, the COA also acts as a legal document that confirms the artist is the creator of the work and also protects the artist from fraud or copyright infringement.

The certificate of authenticity for artwork is also a tool in determining an artwork’s provenance, with the certificate declaring that the work is indeed created by an artist. Giving a buyer a COA  is a way to indicate that the work they are buying is worth the investment and that as a gallery you believe it has the potential to be worth a lot of money someday. 

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What Information Should a COA Include?

Certificates of authenticity may vary depending on the artist or gallery and the nature of the artwork. The basic information that COA should include is as follows:

  • Artist Name
  • Title of Artwork
  • Year Completed
  • Dimensions
  • Medium
  • Photo of Artwork: This helps authenticate and identify the artwork if it ever becomes separated from the certificate
  • Statement of Authenticity: A brief statement written by the artist (dealer or specialist) that states the authenticity of the work and relevant copyrights
  • Signature and Date 

Depending on the artist and type of artwork, a COA may include any of the additional information:

  • Location of Creation
  • Original or Print: For limited edition prints, the number of total prints made and what number this print is out of the total number – ex. 1 of 25. If the print is not a monoprint or a limited edition and can be reproduced at any time, this should be specified on the certificate. If the creator of the print is not the artist of the original piece, their name and signature should also be included on the certificate.
  • Artist’s or Dealer’s Rubber Stamp
  • List of Publications and/or Exhibitions
  • Special Instructions: if relevant this could include care or installation instructions

COA and Buying Tips for Collectors

When buying artwork, you want to make sure that your purchase is safe. Here are some important COA tips to keep in mind.

How to get a certificate of authenticity

Buying in the primary market

Any artwork sold by an artist or gallery in the primary market, meaning the artwork has had no other owners, is likely to include a COA that is signed by the artist. A COA is also important for works that aren’t signed by the artist, such as conceptual art, sculpture, or printed editions. In lieu of an artist’s signature on a work, the COA confirms its authenticity.

Buying in the secondary market

If you’re purchasing a work in the secondary market, meaning the artwork has had prior owners, then it may not have a COA. That is ok because there are other types of documentation that can authenticate the work. The bill of sale or invoice from the gallery or dealer is one such document. 

When purchasing in the secondary market, it’s also very important to ask for a fact sheet. A fact sheet details the provenance of the artwork. The provenance is the history of ownership of an artwork. It outlines the works of past owners, gallery or museum exhibitions, and press mentions. When a fact sheet can trace an artwork back to the artist’s studio it acts as a very strong authenticating document. (Artsy)

How do you know the certificate of authenticity and other documentation are valid?

Ask to see the COA and documentation before you buy

Before you purchase the work, it’s important to see all the accompanying documentation. This will help you confirm the validity of the documentation and to be sure there are no red flags before you purchase the piece.

Confirm that it’s valid

It should be signed by the artist, a confirmed or established dealer or an agent of the artist, or a certified expert on the artist. It shouldn’t be signed by a casual third party dealer or reseller. If it’s not signed by one of these individuals then it’s likely not a valid COA and cannot act as an authenticator for the artwork. (Art Business)

How Does the Certificate of Authenticity Affect Provenance?

As works move from the primary to secondary market it’s important to understand that the value of an artwork can change. Understanding where a work of art first began and where it has been helps the global art market understand the artworks intrinsic value. 

While the Certificate of Authenticity role is to help buyers understand the authenticity of a work it doesn’t describe the history of it’s ownership. Having a Letter of Provenance (LOP) can help endorse the authenticity of artwork as well as describe its history of ownership. As works pass through creatible dealers and owners, having the history of ownership can be more relevant and interesting than a COA in understanding the value of a piece. 

Both LOPs and COAs are useful documentation to understand ownership and the value of an artwork. At the end of the day the credibility of both these documents depends on the credibility of its creator. 

Conclusion

It’s important to note that COA templates are easy to find online, so essentially anyone can create one. However, if there is any question about the source or validity of the documentation, do ask for clarification. If you’re purchasing from a third party you can always contact the noted experts listed on the documentation. 

You can rest assured that if you’re purchasing from a well-established gallery, dealer, or auction house, they will have all the appropriate documentation in place to ensure your purchase is safe.

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