The significance of an artist’s signature is summarised by Thomas Hoving in Art for Dummies as follows:


“... the presence or lack of the artist's signature is not as significant as you might think in establishing the importance or value of a work of art. Few things are easier in the faking, or near-faking, or restoring game than to add initials or the signature of the artist and date to a work. In the fine arts, it's the overall quality of the work and its condition that are important, not the signature."

Put another way – it is relatively easy to copy someone else’s signature, so anyone seeking to authenticate an artwork as being by a particular artist should consider a wider range of factors than just the signature.

- Is the work executed in a style and to a level of skill usually associated with this artist?

- Does the subject matter or theme fit with other works by the artist?

- Is the artistic media consistent with what was available and normally used by the artist at the relevant time?

- Is there a clear record or chain of ownership (provenance) from the artist to the current owner?

Interestingly, even works with a forged signature may not themselves be forgeries. Signing works of art did not become common until the 1800s. Prior to this, many great works were unsigned. Accordingly, there are instances in which owners of authentic but unsigned paintings have arranged for a replica of the artist’s signature to be added to the work. While forensic examination of the signature would identify a forged signature, the painting itself is authentic.

Famous forgeries in New Zealand

In New Zealand, our relatively young artistic history means forgery is less prevalent, and perhaps more difficult to get away with, given there are usually few degrees of separation between the artist and the ultimate holder of a work. However, two very different forgery scandals have been widely reported here.

Our most prolific art forger, Karl Sim, was brought before the courts in the 1980s. Charged with forging the works of Petrus van der Velden and C F Goldie, the true extent of Sim’s forgeries remains unknown. In the last months of his life, Sim claimed that a list of 50 artists whose works he had forged was “just the ones I can remember.” Sim appeared to remain unrepentant about his forgeries, even changing his name to Carl Feodor Goldie so he could legally continue to sign his paintings as “C F Goldie.”


A scandal of a very different nature dogged former Prime Minister Helen Clark in her final term in office. Miss Clark, then also Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, put her signature to artwork she had not created. The incident was swiftly dubbed “Paintergate”, and the Prime Minister’s actions were referred to the Police. While the Police concluded that Miss Clark was “motivated by an attempt to help charity fundraising, not personal gain,” the finding did little to stem the tide of derision rained upon the Prime Minister by her political opponents and media commentators.


Other reasons for signing art

While the presence of an artist’s signature is of only limited weight in establishing the authenticity of a work, there are other reasons why artworks are generally signed.

A signed work is prima facie evidence as to who created the work and, if the signature is legible or well known, generally helps inform viewers as to the identity of the artist. This is particularly valuable for works of art for which receipts or other authenticating documents are either non-existent or lost (such as may happen with works acquired through an inheritance or from a garage sale). 

Sometimes signatures are valued as an effective declaration by the artist that the work is finished, approved by the artist, and ready for public display. Works without a signature might, perhaps, be works that the artist had either not completed, or did not intend to be released for sale. 

Styles of signature

Artwork can legitimately be signed in a great number of ways and places, although in practice most paintings are signed on one of the bottom corners. Sometimes artists sign on the side of a work, or verso (on the reverse) – particularly when the signature might detract from the work itself. Sculptures are most commonly signed on the base.

Artists may sign with a stamp, initials, monogram, full name or using symbols. Sometimes an artist also adds a date, title, inscription (such as a dedication or description) or initials signifying the receipt of an honour (eg; ONZM or QSM).

Works that are part of a limited edition, such as prints or sculptures, should also be marked with the edition number (eg; number 5 in an edition of 12 should be marked with the fraction 5/12). The established convention for fine art prints is to sign in pencil (not ink) beside the bottom edge of the work.

Often an artist’s signature will differ from the one that the artist uses for other purposes (eg; signing cheques), and signatures may even change over the artist’s lifetime. For example, acclaimed New Zealand artist Rita Angus variously signed works under the name Rita Angus, Rita Cook (her married name) and R. McKenzie (a surname adopted after her divorce).


For further information contact ZIMMERMAN - www.zimmerman.co.nz / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.