An artwork’s proof of authenticity can take many different forms, from invoices to signatures to exhibition stickers. These documents map the history of the artwork—and may reveal stories about the piece that you can tell for years to come.
When making your next artwork purchase, what proof of authenticity do you need? The answer will depend on whether the artwork has been bought and sold previously. Here are some general guidelines.
Artworks in the primary market have never been bought or sold before. When you buy a work in the primary market, you are the first person (aside from the artist or gallery) to ever own the piece.
With your sale, you will want to save a few documents that trace the artwork back to the artist—as you might need this paperwork if you decide to resell or donate the work in the future.
When you purchase an artwork, the artist or gallery will send you an invoice, which serves as your lasting record of the sale.
If you are buying a signed work by an emerging contemporary artist, there will be little doubt that the work is authentic. In these cases, you will still need to save the invoice as your proof of authenticity.
The Certificate of Authenticity
Famous contemporary artists, such as Damien Hirst and Banksy, can be subject to artwork forgeries in the primary market. For such artists, you will want additional documentation that proves your artwork’s authenticity.
You can ask the gallery to provide a certificate of authenticity (COA)—a document that verifies the artwork’s authenticity—with your purchase. Please note that most gallery-issued COAs are not recognized by auction houses and authoritative sources. Artsy defines a COA as being issued by the artist’s authorized authenticating body; these may be signed by the artist, though others will be signed by the printmaker who collaborated with the artist on the work.
It is also standard practice to request a COA when buying an artwork that is unsigned or easily reproducible, such as a found object sculpture or a limited edition photograph.
Unlike artworks in the primary market, works in the secondary market have been bought and sold previously. These artworks will often come with documentation—such as invoices from past owners or catalogues from gallery exhibitions—that prove their authenticity. Taken together, these records are often referred to as the artwork’s provenance, though provenance more specifically refers to the artwork’s history of ownership
Before you make a purchase, you can ask the gallery or auction house to share information about the artwork’s provenance to ensure that you are buying an original piece.
The Fact Sheet
When buying an artwork in the secondary market, you can ask the gallery or auction house to send you a fact sheet, which outlines all of an artwork’s provenance information. This document will contain details about the work’s past owners, gallery or museum exhibitions, and literature mentions. It is a strong sign of authenticity when these records can trace the artwork all the way back to the artist’s studio.
The fact sheet will also mention whether the artwork is included in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, the descriptive catalogue that lists every work made by that artist. Because they take years to produce, Catalogue raisonnés only exist for the most famous artists—and the mention of your artwork in one of these volumes signals its legitimacy.
If you have questions about an artwork’s authenticity, do not hesitate to ask the gallery or auction house to provide more information. Ultimately, you are responsible for getting these documents from the seller, and this due diligence will give you added confidence about the work you are buying.
The Certificate of Authenticity
As with primary market works, the works by famous secondary market artists can be subject to artwork forgeries in the primary market. For these artists as well, you will want additional documentation that proves your artwork’s authenticity.
Before purchasing the work, you can ask the gallery if the work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity (COA). In the case of secondary market artists, COAs are often issued by the artist’s estate or foundation, and if the artist is still alive, their studio. Galleries may also offer to issue their own COA, but, as with primary market works, most gallery-issued COAs are not recognized by auction houses and authoritative sources.