02/24/2014 04:41 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

Artists: All the Prints You Produce Should Be Sold With a Certificate of Authenticity

Walton Mendelson, an artist in Prescott, Ariz., who creates drawings, collages and photographs, doesn't have a high opinion of certificates of authenticity -- the documents accompanying digital prints of his work that provide basic information on the edition -- but he has come to see that many collectors hold a different point of view. "Just shy of 50 percent of the hits on my Web site are for the certificate of authenticity page," he said. "People obviously think this is an important thing to have, so I guess I have to, also." Otherwise, Mendelson associates these certificates with commemorative plates and other art-tinged knick-knacks. They are "a hoax, a funny way to con somebody into believing that a $7 plate is really worth $50. I'm embarrassed by it, but well...."

For potential buyers of his work, which averages $600 a print, however, a certificate of authenticity serves just the opposite purpose, to convince them that the prints aren't knock-offs worth only the price of the paper they are printed on (if that). This fear is never far from the minds of collectors in the art multiples field: Do copies of an original image have any intrinsic value? (Does the print itself have value, or are buyers only paying for the expense of operating a printer?) Does limiting the number of prints in an edition actually increase that value? Does providing more information about a given print or edition of prints add value to it? It was to give consumers greater protection when entering the multiples market that art print disclosure laws were enacted in 14 states around the country (Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Wisconsin). These consumer protection laws vary from one state to another, some are more stringent that others, but they all require the sellers of multiples to provide information to buyers, such as the name of the artist, the year in which the work was printed and the printing plate created, the number of prints that are signed and numbered (or signed only, or unsigned and unnumbered), the number of proofs that are signed and numbered (or signed only, or unsigned and unnumbered) and the total size of the edition.

As a result, galleries throughout the United States regularly provide documents for the art multiples they sell, usually referred to as certificates of authenticity. Artists who sell their own prints directly are responsible for providing this same documentation, although it is far less common to see them offering certificates of authenticity when making sales at exhibitions, in their studios or through a Web site. Perhaps, many artists believe that the laws only apply to dealers and galleries. In fact, the New York State law specifically assigns liability to the artists if the information they provide to a gallery owner in writing about their prints is incorrect. In all 14 states, sellers of prints -- artists or dealers -- could face prosecution by the state attorney general.

There is no print disclosure statute in Arizona, but Mendelson is aware that, through the Web site, his work may be sold to buyers all over the country, some living in any of the 14 states with these laws. Many artists' own certificates can be somewhat free-form in nature, suggesting good intentions rather than a strict interpretation of the law.

Washington, D.C. arts lawyer Joshua Kaufman stated that artists should have their certificates comply with the strictest state laws, particularly California and New York, since their work may be sold there. He added that all state laws require information to be provided to "potential purchasers when a print is offered for sale. It is incumbent upon each Web site to either have this information next to the print or have a link from the image to a certificate of authenticity. A copy must be shipped with the print as well."

Loopholes exist in even the most stringent print disclosure laws -- it is possible to have more than one limited edition of a particular image, if they are at different sizes or use different types of numbering or use different printing processes (an offset lithograph and a digital print, for example), and the number of proofs available for sale may be quite large -- and collectors have become wary of paying top dollar in a market flooded with prints of supposed limited quantity. Required by law and, generally, a good sales tool, certificates of authenticity offer artists selling their own work an opportunity to display their commitment to their art.