08/18/2014 08:39 am ET Updated Oct 18, 2014

The Importance of a Certificate of Authenticity

You are a good artist and a good salesman, since some buyer likes your work and wants to purchase the cast piece that you have been explaining and touting to him (or her). The remaining question is, are you an ethical person?

A receipt -- or it might be called a Certificate of Authenticity -- should accompany any sale, identifying the name of the artist, title of the artwork, the year in which it was created, the foundry where it was produced, the medium or process used in making it, the physical dimensions of the art, whether or not the piece is part of an edition (and if so, the number of sculpture casts produced as of the date of sale) and whether or not that edition is limited. That is the law governing those who sell art multiples, including sculptures, in California, New York State and in a more limited way Rhode Island. Additionally, the laws in California and New York also require that sellers of sculpture multiples inform buyers if other copies of that object have been or will be cast, the existence and number of artist proofs and if there are other editions or versions of the artwork that have been or might be produced. Marketing and selling a sculpture as unique and then producing an edition of the artwork would be a clear case of fraud.

A number of other states (Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon and South Carolina) also have statutes governing the sale of art multiples, but those laws only apply to fine art graphic prints. Perhaps, sculptors and their dealers living in the 47 other states can get away with something less than full disclosure. They could, but there are reasons that might not want to.

One reason to limit the number of copies in an edition is to ensure the value of these objects by keeping the supply scarce. "A lot of people don't know, or aren't aware, that most sculptures are made as multiples," said Renee Vara, an art adviser in New York City. Providing information to buyers is less likely to scare them off than to give them confidence when they make a purchase that they are being treated fairly and honestly, she added. An edition of five, plus two artist proofs, for instance, would suggest to prospective buyers that they might own an artwork that only a few others could acquire, elevating the price of each single copy. On the other hand, an edition of 150, or an unlimited or open edition, would indicate to would-be collectors that there is little sense in paying a high price for an artwork that any number of others might buy.

Collectors who purchase a work of art they assumed might be rare and find out isn't would likely not do business with that artist or dealer ever again and might bring a lawsuit depending upon what was said about the object.

A somewhat trickier situation involves different versions of what might seem to be the same sculpture but are not necessarily part of the same edition. "The art multiples laws are actually quite artist-friendly," said Manhattan lawyer John Cahill. "What exactly is an edition is open to question." Artists may create separate limited editions of the same sculpture based on the color of the patina, different sizes, different processes (bronze and resin, for instance), even different numbering of the copies in an edition (for instance, Roman numerals on one and Arabic numerals on another).

The myriad possibilities require artists to keep good records of what they have produced, as well as a good practices requirement to inform their dealers and collectors of what they have done or plan to do. "Artists don't want to irritate the people who can help their careers," Judith Bresler, a New York City art lawyer and co-author of Art Law (Practicing Law Institute), said. "The best way to proceed is to provide full disclosure of the information required by state statute or, in the absence of such a statute, in accordance, insofar as possible, with what is required by New York's statute. If the artist is selling directly to the buyer, the artist discloses this information to the buyer; if the artist is consigning the sculpture multiple to the dealer to sell, then the artist should provide this information to the dealer to pass on to the buyer."