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Chapter 8 - Documentation | My Art Colelction - Art Collection / Art Collecting Fundamentails Tutorial

Chapter 8 - Documentation

When a southern California woman purchased a paint-splattered canvas for $5 in a thrift shop over ten years ago, her friend who was an art teacher told her it looked like a Jackson Pollock. It seems Jackson Pollock had a brother who lived in the area and he may have given away some of the artist's work.

Was this painting, potentially worth $12 million dollars or more, the most staggering thrift shop find ever?

The discovery of a valuable work in a thrift shop spawned a detective story worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Almost a decade after the piece's discovery an art forensics specialist discovered a faint fingerprint on the back of the canvas. It turned out to match fingerprints taken from Pollock's studio. The conclusion was, yes, this painting is a Jackson Pollock.

Case closed, right? Wrong!

The International Foundation for Art Research refused to authenticate the canvas. Without knowing its provenance, a verified history of a work's ownership, they would not certify the canvas as being done by Jackson Pollock.

The next and last resort to prove the painting is authentic is DNA analysis. The painting's owner, now 70, is "tired out" by the wrangling of the art world. A private investor may have come to her rescue by aiding her in bringing the DNA testing about and determining if the piece belonged in that thrift shop once and for all.

This story illustrates the importance of documentation. Not that you should pass up a $5 painting in a thrift shop because it doesn't have a certificate of authenticity, but regardless of your price range, always document the piece you've bought.

This type of information is extremely useful when trying to appraise or sell a piece. In fact, reputable auction houses will not accept art work for sale without proper documentation. And, knowing the history of your piece can help you appreciate it on a different level.

This history of where the piece has been since the artist created it is especially important when you are buying the work of an artist who is famous and deceased. Paintings that date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries probably have had several owners. In the case of these older works there are usually experts who specialize in a particular artist who are able to assure that a work is genuine.

Fakes and forgeries have occurred throughout the history of art, especially when dealing with the works of deceased masters. Not only collectors but museums have been fooled too. Master forgers have been known to fake certificates of authenticity down to using paper from the right period.

The old adage, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is," should be taken to heart. If a Matisse drawing is unheard of at that price, it could be a forgery or stolen. Fine art by dead masters is hard to come by. There may be occasional bargains, perhaps the seller needs to raise money quickly and is willing to take a loss, but this situation, while not unheard of, is not common.

The lesson is, if you intend to buy the work of a deceased master artist, develop a relationship with a reputable dealer whom you can trust to guide you. Know when to get expert advice. If you're unsure of a work's authenticity or value, seek out an experienced professional.

Certificate of Authenticity

It is the responsibility of the gallery, dealer or auction house to provide you with the provenance and a certificate of authenticity. This is a statement signed by the dealer or authorized artist representative that a given work of art is genuine. It should include the artist's name, the title of the piece, the medium, dimensions, approximately when the piece was executed and a statement that this is an authentic work by the artist.

If the work is by a new or young artist there is probably little in the way of provenance so the certificate of authenticity is important protection. If you bought the work for investment and you think over time the artist's work will go up in price, you may ask the dealer to give you a certificate of authenticity without the sales price on it (a separate receipt will do). If you have plans to sell the work in the future, the buyer will expect a certificate of authenticity and you may not want to reveal what you originally paid for the piece.

Should you bequeath artwork to your children and they want to sell it, the certificate of authenticity and provenance will greatly contribute to the value of the work.


The estimated value of a work or collection by a professional is important for insurance purposes as well as for selling the work. If the piece you wish to sell is by a living artist check with a dealer who handles the artist's work to see if it has gone up in price since you purchased yours. If the work is by a deceased master, research the last auction price paid for a work by your artist. You can begin by checking the reference section of your library for Mayer's International Auction Records or do an internet search for a "ballpark" idea of what your piece is worth.

If your piece is very valuable, it's best to pay for the services of a professional appraiser. And remember, an appraisal is only as credible as the person who prepares it. Verify that the appraiser adheres to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice.

The appraisal should include:

1. A letter of transmittal outlining the appraisal assignment, the scope of the job, the valuation approach, and the type of value to be determined (e.g. retail replacement value for insurance appraisals, fair-market value for charitable donations, estate tax valuation, or resale value range);
2. A clear description of the artwork including a statement of the work's condition and the name of artist, date of birth (and death if applicable), title of the artwork, medium and dimensions;
3. Commentary regarding the research conducted, the valuation factors considered, and the placement of the artwork within the artist's body of work;
4. Other elements: a list of references used, provenance and exhibitions, and a clear photograph of the work;
5. A certificate of appraisal, the appraiser's qualifications, the qualifying conditions and assumptions of the Appraisal Report, and a statement as to the code of ethics under which the appraiser practices.

Other Documentation

When buying contemporary work make sure you receive a copy of the artist's biography or resume and a list of exhibitions and awards. Look for books, exhibition catalogs, gallery brochures, and reviews that include the artist. This information will not only aid in appraising your artwork but will be helpful to your heirs who may not appreciate or understand your collection.

Document any anecdotes the seller can share about the work but remember, unless you buy the piece directly from an artist or his representative, some of the information could be hearsay. Claims that a painting has been in the family for centuries should be taken lightly—unless there is documentation.

All this documentation will pay off in the end—not only by contributing to increased valuations and protecting your investment but by saving you and yours headaches down the road.