05/29/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Certificates of Authenticity Give Art Collectors Extra (and Legal) Assurance

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Walton Mendelson, an artist in Prescott, Arizona 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 website 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.

The majority of print disclosure laws also require collectors to be notified of the type of print (digital, lithograph or etching, for instance), whether or not the edition was produced after the artist's death and if the edition is a restrike (a later printing that is not part of the original edition), whether or not the artist actually signed the print or if the signature was printed mechanically along with the image, the name and location of the printer and whether or not the printing plate has been destroyed or is in storage (and able to be used again). Most of the states follow California's lead in identifying the applicable prints as selling for more than $100, not including the frame. These statutes protect buyers in their respective states, regardless of where the prints were actually created, making dealers and gallery owners who sell prints in those states liable for incorrect or absent information.

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 website. 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 website, his work may be sold to buyers all over the country, some living in any of the 14 states with these laws. Mendelson's certificate of authenticity offers a limited amount of information about the prints he sells -- their title, medium, size, type of edition, when it was printed, the type of printer and paper used, some care and handling advice and a statement that "All information and statements contained herein are true and correct" that is signed by Mendelson -- which probably reflects his intuitive sense of what collectors want to know rather than what state laws require.

Many artists' own certificates can be somewhat free-form in nature, suggesting good intentions rather than a strict interpretation of the law. The certificate of authenticity of Baton Rouge, Louisiana painter Angela McGraw lists only the artist's name, date and size of the edition, title of the work, number in the edition and physical size of the print, while that of painter T. Kelley Tagas of Bozeman, Montana is more like a sales receipt, indicating title, size, medium, date of sale, price, buyer's name and signature, and the artist's signature (twice). Tagas' certificates are almost works of art in themselves, with background colors that pick up the colors on the prints themselves and thumbnail images of the prints on the upper right- and left-hand corners. JerriAnn Holt, an artist in Windsor, Maine, stated that she regularly provides certificates of authenticity for digital, or giclee, prints on canvas but only occasionally for prints on paper. "It depends on the price point, since giclees cost more and the venue," she said. "I always have certificates when prints are in galleries, not so much for when I'm selling works at an art fair or on the street." "No one has ever asked her for a certificate of authenticity, she added, and "most people don't really care."

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 website 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."

Since it is not utilitarian, all art has more a perceived than an intrinsic value, and part of the job of an artist or seller of art is to suggest that this piece of paper, this canvas, this piece of wood or metal (or whatever it is) is worth more than the materials involved. Many artists who offer certificates of authenticity claim that their collectors believe -- or hope they believe -- these documents both indicate and add value to the prints. "From a marketing standpoint, you are promoting the integrity of the artist, and from a sales standpoint you want customers to know what they are buying," said Robert Westerfell, business manager for Noble Powell III, a painter of golf course scenes in Port Hueneme, California.

The word "integrity" frequently comes up when artists describe their certificates of authenticity, meaning a variety of things, such as the prints "were done by the artist whose name is on the piece," according to Washington, D.C. painter Jenne Glover, or that "I'm being held to my word that there are only so many prints in the edition, and no more than that," said T. Kelly Tagas. 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.