Advice for Print Collectors: Signatures

Without a doubt, the stickiest question when it comes to buying modern prints is the signature. An artist can sign a print in two ways: in the plate or by hand.

a. While the artist is preparing the matrix he can inscribe his signature in it. This signature thus becomes part of the image and, of course, will appear in every print printed from that matrix. The prints in that edition are said to be “signed in the plate” or “plate signed”. In the case of lithographs, sometimes the term “signed in the stone” is used; in the case of relief prints, “signed in the block”.

b. After the prints have been printed from the matrix, the artist can sign the prints individually. Prints are traditionally signed in pencil, usually on the right side, just below the image. Such prints are said to be “signed in pencil”, “hand-signed”, or simply “signed”.

Of course, an artist might well choose to affix his signature to the matrix and also to sign each print individually. Such prints can be said to be “signed in the plate and also pencil-signed” or something like that.

Serious print dealers and collectors do not make a big deal out of a plate signature. As I said, a plate signature is simply part of the image.

I remember once being in the gallery of my uncle Sylvan, perhaps the best-known American print dealer of the second half of the 20th century.  A woman asked him, “What does it mean when it says that a print is ‘signed in the plate?'”.  Without thinking for a second, he gruffly responded, “It means it’s not signed.”

An autograph signature, on the other hand, can greatly affect the value of a print—but only if the signature is authentic.

Picasso, Miró, Chagall, Matisse, Braque, Warhol and other major modern artists all produced many prints that were published in relatively small, hand-signed editions. These prints, unless they are in bad condition (because they’ve been soaked in a flood, are badly torn, etc.) are always worth at least $1,000 and are often worth far more—sometimes even over $1 million.

But they also produced prints that were published in enormous unsigned editions. Often these prints (usually, but not always, lithographs) appeared in magazines like XXe Siècle, Derrière le Miroir, and Verve. They also appeared in books: for example, the original editions of some of the catalogues raisonnés of Miró, Picasso, Chagall, Braque, and others contain original lithographs.

And these unsigned, huge-edition lithographs are worth very little. For example, the first volume of the catalogue raisonné of Miró’s lithographs includes 11 original lithographs (plus the dustjacket)—yet the book is worth only about $500. Each lithograph is thus worth about $30 to $40 at most.

Some crooks buy these lithographs in quantity, paying perhaps $20 apiece. Then they forge the signature of the appropriate artist, and try to sell them. A serious auction house wouldn’t touch these prints, but online auction venues are almost entirely unpoliced.

Might some of the signatures on such prints be authentic? Perhaps a few, but not many. Think about it…. You are a famous artist. You issue some prints in signed, limited editions. You issue other prints in unsigned, unlimited editions. One day an admirer comes up to you and asks you to please sign a print of yours that was issued unsigned. Do you do it? Well, if you’re a nice guy, you might do it now and then. But you CERTAINLY won’t make a practice of it: I mean, if you freely sign these cheap unsigned prints, why should anyone buy one of your expensive signed ones? Basically, you would be competing against yourself, undermining the market for your own works.

Of course, if you ever question a suspect seller about how it is that the Chagall lithograph he is offering is signed, since it was issued unsigned, he will have a good (and entirely undocumented) explanation. He will tell you that it comes from the collection of a very distinguished art connoisseur (forget it: distinguished connoisseurs do not go around asking artists to sign unsigned prints). Or he will tell you that his Uncle Teddy was Chagall’s tailor, and Chagall signed this print for him as a favor (forget it: under such circumstances Chagall would’ve added an inscription, like “For Teddy, the greatest tailor in Paris”— but crooks avoid adding inscriptions, because a full sentence is harder to forge than a simple signature). Or he will tell you that he bought this print from a very reliable and honest (but of course unnamed) source. Yes, THERE IS ALWAYS A STORY. Since I have been in the art business I have heard more of these totally undocumented stories than I care to remember. But whenever I ask to see some documentation: an old receipt, an old catalogue entry…. “Ah, they were all lost when my parents’ house was flooded in 1952! We were lucky just to save the Chagall!”

If a lithograph that was issued unsigned now bears a signature, the chances are very good that the signature is forged. But even if it’s authentic, who cares? In the age of eBay, nobody will ever believe it’s real! So think twice before buying a “signed print” that was published unsigned. To find out which prints were issued signed and which were issued unsigned, consult the catalogue raisonné.

About the author

Dr William Cole, a recognized expert in art connoisseurship, is director of the Sylvan Cole Gallery.  His articles have appeared in Print Quarterly, Art in Print, Word & Image, and other leading journals.  His most recent book is a catalogue raisonné of the illustrated books and print portfolios of Masafumi Yamamoto.

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  1. says

    I met Dr. Cole many years ago when I lived in the NYC area. I used to love to look at the print colletions at Associated American Artist.
    I have lived in Santa Fe, NM since 1972 and have been envoled in printmaking for many years. beryl markowitz

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