Spring 2011

In Deed

Certificates of authenticity in art

Susan Hapgood and Cornelia Lauf

For centuries, all it took to guarantee the authorship and authenticity of an artwork was the artist’s signature somewhere on it. These days, however, the focus of corroboration has often shifted from a signature on the physical work to one located on an accompanying “certificate of authenticity,” a document typically laser-printed on acid-free, archival paper. Without this guarantee, much contemporary art cannot be purchased or exhibited.

When there’s no physical artwork, things get even more complicated—a situation that has been highlighted by the radical practices of modern and contemporary artists regarding issues of authorship and authentication. For example, when the certificate merely provides instructions for producing an official, authenticated work (a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, a Felix Gonzales-Torres spill piece), all that museum curators require is a copy of the paperwork, which no longer needs to travel as a material document. (A collector purchasing the work would, of course, require the original signed certificate to satisfy the conditions of the sale.) In cases where the certificate is co-extensive with the work itself, however, even a museum must have the original artifact to display, though traditional notions of “facture” are still irrelevant in this context, as is connoisseurship. Once the idea of art made from preexisting or readymade materials, or at a distance from the artist’s hand, is accepted, the conventions for evaluating (and for valuing) it must be reassessed.

One might expect Marcel Duchamp, who produced his first “assisted” readymade in 1913, to have used certificates of authenticity, but he did not; his preferred method to designate authenticity was to sign the object itself. It was actually not until the middle of the twentieth century that certificates were first utilized, becoming prevalent in the 1960s, when actions, gestures, and concepts were increasingly introduced as works of art. Despite this trend toward dematerialization, artists never intended for their works to be altogether nonexistent, and art that was immaterial, transient, and perhaps even invisible could be verified with the aid of certificates of authenticity. In retrospect, the impact of these certificates has been enormous, because they not only reflected the emergence of more dematerialized ways of working, but also helped to liberate artists from the yoke of material production, undermining the primacy of the signed physical artwork in the marketplace and allowing virtually any kind of work to be bought and sold. It was a deft move for artists to utilize trusted legal and administrative precedents to facilitate their ongoing creative liberty. Anything that they specify to be their genuine work is fair game: as long as it is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, it is documented and tradeworthy.

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