In a world full of reproductions, determining the value of an objet d’art depends on establishing its authenticity—ensuring what you’re buying is the real deal. A work of art’s unique aesthetic authority (as Walter Benjamin would have it) is central to its worth. Even before the pandemic made it difficult to assess an artwork in person before purchase, there were other tools those in the business could rely on to adequately appraise or authenticate a work. Yet not all of these tools are considered equal.
Certificates of authenticity, which have been in circulation for decades, were once a vaunted source for proving provenance. Increasingly, though, they are being called into question. Typically a slip of paper that can serve as a historical record of sales while linking the artwork to the artist, a certificate of authenticity has often been required by auction houses and collectors to confirm an artwork’s provenance and hence its value. Newer certificates might be affixed with a hologram to match a hologram on the work or feature a serial number also placed on the work of art itself. Regardless of their exact form and details, these documents are intended to provide proof of proper attribution.
For some artists, certificates of authenticity are essential to confirming authorship. Studio works by Banksy, for example, are only considered authentic when they are accompanied by a certificate issued by the Pest Control Office (which refuses to authenticate works of his removed from the street, though that doesn’t always stop them from selling). In the past decade, however, multiple contemporary artists’ foundations in the United States ceased issuing certificates of authenticity entirely after a string of lawsuits were filed by collectors whose works they deemed inauthentic. “Several foundations stopped issuing certificates of authenticity back around 2012—works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring had all previously been authenticated that way,” said Sharon Chrust of Sharon Chrust and Associates and currently the American Appraisers Association’s first vice president (she’ll become its president in June). “Although some foundations, like [Robert Motherwell’s] Dedalus Foundation or the Calder Foundation continue to authenticate, they no longer offer certificates of authenticity.”
Chrust was careful to note that she is an appraiser and not an authenticator, and that laws surrounding authentication can vary from country to country. Still, she was one of several people who told Artsy that certificates of authenticity, when available, are used only in conjunction with other materials confirming provenance.
“What we rely most heavily on in our appraisals are catalogue raisonné and provenance documentation,” she said. “We consider where the sale has taken place, as well—is it an eBay sale or a work bought at a gallery or from Christie’s? Those are the most important things that we look at. Certificates of authenticity can be forged just as well as the work can be forged.”
Robert Read, the head of fine art and private client at insurance underwriter Hiscox, agreed. “At the moment, most certificates of authenticity are not worth the paper they’re written on,” he said, noting that simply googling the phrase will pull up tutorials on how to create one yourself. For Hiscox’s purposes, he said, they look at other variables. “We don’t insist on certificates of authenticity. We’re looking more at who we’re insuring and who has valued the items or who has authenticated the items rather than actually having a certificate.”
The issue, Read said, lies in the ability to tie the certificate to the work in a way that cannot be changed. “You need to be able to link the certificate to the artwork over time for it to be of value,” he explained. “Provenance is really important. Authenticity is really important when we look at art. But just a paper certificate doesn’t resolve that. If you’re buying an Old Master, you have no idea where it’s been in the last 200 or 300 years. For a certificate to be effective, it has to be linked in a way that can’t be tampered with to the work of art. You have to have a way of recording the history.” Nevertheless, the desire for certificates of authenticity for works by contemporary artists has only grown, Read said, especially when purchasing directly from an artist or their gallery. “If you go and buy a new Tracey Emin or a Damien Hirst, you want a certificate that says what it is,” he said. “But if you’re thinking that the certificate is going to give you some comfort when you buy a work of art, it’s not. Given that the art world is largely unregulated, you should focus on who you’re buying from. With a primary dealer, you know it’s coming straight from the artist’s studio and can be confident about what you’re buying.”
Read noted there have been positive developments thanks to new technologies like Tagsmart, which uses metrics and tools like DNA tagging and blockchain to record a work of art’s history. But usage of these technologies is not yet prevalent enough in the industry to make an impact. Instead, those who are involved in attribution and authentication like Jilleen Nadolny, the director of the U.K. offices of ArtDiscovery, rely on a number of materials as they conduct scientific analysis.
“While certificates of authenticity are often debatable and of little actual worth on their own—having no financial backing or warranty—they can become much more valuable when coupled with provenance and technical investigation: scientific analysis put into context with technical art history,” Nadolny said. “Technical investigation can support connoisseurial opinions with data and standard testing protocols, creating referenced, evidence-based reports that allow artworks to be accepted as authentic by the market.”
In other words, certificates of authenticity on their own may not be entirely useful; other documentation and research, as well as further technical and scientific analysis of the work of art, however, can prove its validity and hence its worth. “Obtaining solid evidence—a thorough due diligence package involving scientific analysis, provenance research, and connoisseurial approval—is the best way to be sure of the authenticity of artworks,” Nadolny said.
But we shouldn’t write certificates of authenticity off entirely. As the industry continues to evolve and newer technologies for tracking artworks and their provenance are adopted, they may regain their utility as a tool of the trade.
“The quality of what a certificate is and how it links to the work has to be better for the industry to rely on it,” Read said. “If you could link that certificate to the work of art and record its history of being bought and sold over time, you would have a perfect provenance and authenticity as well.”