People still ask me if I can appraise a work of art if it is not signed (or marked). The answer is yes, I can appraise an unsigned painting, print, lithograph, watercolor, sculpture, etc. Any work of art can be appraised without a signature.
There are so many factors that go into properly appraising a work of art that a signature, just like autographs, is NOT the holy grail when it comes to demonstrating authenticity or value. In fact, signatures are so often forged that other factors–like provenance (chain of ownership), sales records, and relationship to other works by the artist–could trump the presence of a signature when evaluating a work of art.
Nobody ever thinks that they have a signature that is forged as they type a name into a search engine to start their research, but I have seen signatures forged on 19th Century paintings using new Sharpie magic markers. This is just one of the myths about paintings and value.
Don’t fall for this unsigned and unmarked myth because you’ll lose money when selling your antiques and when you are shopping at a flea market. Here are the three top reasons why a work of art may not have a signature, but still could be authentic and valuable.
1. Why No Signature or Mark?
During certain eras in the history of art, it was seen as blatant marketing for a professional artist to be paid to produce a work of art and to also sign that work of art. Signing a work of art, in the 1700s, for instance was seen by some as promoting oneself which was widely unacceptable. You will find many unsigned works of art by the Old Masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, John Singleton Copley, and others like R. C. Gorman. Many major works of art from this period have unquestioned authenticity, high value, and NO signatures. Watch a video of me showing you how looking at the back of your painting can help you determine age and value, no signatures required.
2. Forged Signatures & Marks
No one is surprised to see people selling off knock-off wristwatches, computer games, purses … so why not knock off art work? If you want a signature, there is a seller out there who will give you a signature! They will create a forgery just for you. No questions asked. For instance, since authentic Walter Baum paintings are worth tens of thousands of dollars or more, many people will–and have–taken paintings that resemble Baum paintings and forged a Baum signature on them. I have seen Thomas Sully’s paintings with questionable signatures and even fake monograms that were hand etched on antique lamps, vases, and stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Most forgeries are the signatures of big name artists that are added to some substandard work of art–adding insult to injury for the artist. Sometimes, seeing a signature on a certain work of art is a really big warning siren. That’s right, on some works of art the evidence of a signature where one shouldn’t be is a red flag to an expert saying that the work is not authentic. One of the most famous examples is the late career work of Salvador Dali. Talk about forging signatures and fooling buyers… wow, you should read that story.
3. Valuable Unmarked Items
Some unsigned works of art were left unsigned because they were not for sale during the artist’s lifetime, they were left in the artist’s studio at the time of his/her death or they were kept in the artist’s private art collection. It is not uncommon for a work of art to be left unsigned at the time of the artist’s death. That occurs quite regularly with artists who are prolific like the Impressionists and other artists who produce many works of art. The French realist known for animal paintings named Rosa Bonheur left many unsigned paintings in her studio at the time of her death and there was a highly publicized studio sale of these unsigned works. The works had an estate stamp on them indicating that they were Bonheur’s studio works, though unsigned, and even today they continue to command high prices whenever they come to market.
Got an unsigned work of art? It could still be very valuable. I’ll be happy to help with a professional review. Bring it to one of my events or you can submit information for an online review from me. Don’t forget to share this blog post with your friends.