Is Your Certificate of Authenticity

Worth the Paper It's Printed On?

Related Topic: Art Provenance: What It Is and How to Verify It

Are you an artist who wants to include COAs with your art? Are you a collector who has questions about a COA? I regularly consult on all aspects of COAs. Email me at or give me a call at 415.931.7875 to make an appointment if you have any questions about whether a COA is valid or not, or what types of information a valid COA should include.


Q: Should a collector get a certificate of authenticity (COA) when he or she buys a work of art? Or should the certificate be sent separately after they buy the art? Who writes these certificates and what makes them valid? The reason I'm asking is that I bought two limited edition prints from an online art gallery and I expected that the gallery would provide certificates of authenticity with the art. In both cases, they shipped the art but no certificates. The gallery said they would mail the certificates to me, but I have yet to receive them. So please help me understand certificates of authenticity.

A: To begin with, you need to know what a Certificate of Authenticity or COA is because all kinds of COAs are floating around out there, both real and fake. They accompany all kinds of art and are offered by galleries, private sellers, artists, websites and at auctions, especially online auctions like eBay and LiveAuctioneers. And you need to see it BEFORE you buy the art, not after-- no matter what reasons a seller gives or what kinds of promises they make. Unless a certificate of authenticity originates from and is signed by either the artist who created the art, the publisher of the art (in the case of limited editions), a confirmed established dealer or agent of the artist (not a casual third party dealer or reseller), or an acknowledged expert on the artist, that certificate is likely to be pretty much meaningless.

A genuine COA must contain specific descriptive details about the art such as what the medium is (painting, sculpture, digital print, etc), the name of the artist or publisher (or both), the art's exact title or subject matter, dimensions, details of the edition size if it is a limited edition (along with the specific number of the item in question), names of previous owners (when relevant), and if applicable, titles and entries of reference books or other resources that contain either specific or related information about either that work of art or the artist who produced it. Images of the art in question are also good. The title and qualifications of the individual or entity who authored and signed the certificate should also be included, as well as their contact information, and both contact information and qualifications MUST be verifiable.

A formal certificate of authenticity is not necessarily required to prove a work of art is genuine. Any valid receipt, bill of sale or proof of purchase either directly from the artist or from a confirmed and established dealer, reseller, publisher, or representative or agent of the artist will do. An appraisal from a recognized authority or expert on the artist which includes a statement or guarantee of authenticity is also acceptable. Whenever authenticity is at issue, only conclusive statements of authorship from a RECOGNIZED or QUALIFIED expert on the art and artist in question are acceptable, not informal statements, opinions or offhand price estimates from anyone who happens to buy or sell or appraise or otherwise transact in occasional works by the artist.

For the value of an art object, the nuances of the author's personal life are important, and these can be completely different details, what he ate, where he lived, where he walked, what medications he took, what his orientation was.

You can never be too careful here. Certificates of authenticity can be problematic; some are basically worthless and others even fraudulent. Unfortunately, many people believe that art with a COA is automatically genuine, but that is absolutely not the case. To begin with, no laws govern who is or is not qualified to write certificates of authenticity except in rare instances. Nor is there any standard with respect to what types of statements, information or documentation a COA must include. In other words, anyone can write a COA whether they're qualified to or not. As if that's not bad enough, unscrupulous sellers sometimes forge official looking documents or certificates of authenticity and use them to either sell outright fakes or to misrepresent existing works of art as being more important or valuable than they actually are. These days, anyone can buy attractive COA templates online and simply fill in the blanks. To make matters even worse, meaningless or bogus COAs have been issued for decades, so don't automatically assume that a COA dated 1955, for example, is genuine just because it's old.

Your particular situation does not sound good because the seller says the art has certificates of authenticity, but has not yet shown or sent them. At this point, trying to get your money back is probably the wisest course of action. To repeat-- from now on, make sure you see all information and documentation a seller claims to have BEFORE buying the art. Keep in mind that if a work of art supposedly comes with a certificate of authenticity, not only should you be able to inspect it in its entirety ahead of time and read and review and corroborate that it's actually valid, but it should also accompany the art when you receive it. Never simply accept a seller's promises or claims as true without first seeing the evidence and verifying it. And always make sure you get a money-back guarantee.

Below are some additional pointers to keep in mind when you are told a work of art has a certificate of authenticity:

* First and foremost, always see, read, understand, and confirm all information contained in any certificate of authenticity BEFORE you buy the art.

* All certificates of authenticity must be original documents, hand-signed by the artists or authenticators-- NOT photocopies. Unscrupulous sellers have been known to take legitimate certificates, doctor them in various ways, photocopy them, and then use them to "authenticate" works of art that they were never intended to authenticate.

* A genuine certificate of authenticity must fully and accurately describe the work of art which it is authenticating, including but not limited to the art's size, medium (painting, watercolor, limited edition print, etc), date, title, subject matter, edition size (including the specific number of the work in question), and so on. There should be no doubt that the COA describes one and only one work of art-- the one you are considering buying.

* Original receipts directly from the artists or from recognized galleries who represent or were known for representing the artists can also be considered as proof or authentication that the art is by the artist in question. Letters or correspondences directly from the artists that mention, refer to or describe the art can also be considered as authentications.

* If the art is for sale online, request and review the complete COA or documentation being offered and not just a portion of it. Have the seller email photographs or scans of the complete documents, not just portions of them.

* Any conditional statements found in a certificate of authenticity such as "in our considered opinion..." or "we believe that..." are warning signs that at best, the art is only attributed to the artist (which is not a COA) and at worst, that the art may a forgery. The only valid COA is one hand signed by an established respected expert on the artist stating conclusively that the art is by the artist whose signature it bears.

* A valid certificate of authenticity should contain verifiable documented proof, references, explanations or evidence of why the art is genuine.

* If you have any questions about a certificate of authenticity, contact the individual who authored it and get the answers BEFORE you buy the art. Contacting the seller for their response is always recommended as well.

* If a COA contains no contact information for the signer or the signature is not identifiable, then you are taking your chances by buying the art.

* When the contact information on a certificate of authenticity is no longer valid or is out-of-date, contact a current authority or expert on the artist. If the certificate has been authored by a known, recognized and respected authority on the artist (living or otherwise), it is very likely adequate proof the art is genuine no matter how long ago it was written.

* A statement that a work of art is genuine is NOT valid proof of authenticity unless signed by an established and respected authority on the artist. That authority's qualifications should either be stated on the certificate or be otherwise accessible, available in references or online, and easy to find and verify.

* A certificate with inadequate contact information for the person or company making the statements, or with only an unidentifiable or illegible signature is not necessarily valid. Illegible signatures or incomplete contact information are not acceptable. The signer, source and origination of a COA must be traceable in order to corroborate any statements made about the art.

* Certificates for art by famous artists who produced large amounts of art such as Warhol, Picasso, Chagall or Miro should include the exact titles of the art, names of reference books that list the art, dates the art was produced, names of publishers (for limited editions), edition sizes (for limited editions), and exact dimensions of the art. Also good to have are names of previous owners, names of dealers or galleries that have sold the art in the past, information about auctions where the art was sold, images of the art, and any other relevant information that speaks directly to the art's history and authenticity.

* ALL limited edition prints by Warhol, Picasso, Chagall, Miro, and many other famous or well-known artists are documented in books called catalogues raisonne. If a catalogue raisonne exists for an artist, the corresponding catalogue number or entry for the work of art in question MUST be noted on the certificate of authenticity.

* Anytime a certificate of authenticity does not satisfy all of the above requirements, consider yourself at risk if you buy the art.

artist art

(art by Tsherin Sherpa)

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