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Buying original graphic art via the internet

Here are some useful tips for buying graphic art prints on the internet. Including a checklist with 'the most common tricks' that can be used to deceive you.

Buying original prints by well-known artists on the internet can be tricky. Even experts may be trapped by some of the pitfalls. Whether you intend to buy art on eBay, or elsewhere on the internet, you need to be able to rely on the information that is provided. Transparency and comprehensive information, therefore, are essential to protect you from making a bad purchase.

Let's start by revealing the worst aspect:
Most of the "original prints" offered on the internet are photomechanical reproductions, so-called art prints!

To clarify what this is about, we will give an example of one of the most popular works of Chagall’s printed graphics, his "Paradise" with the green donkey. Honestly: Would you be able to tell which one of the three graphics is a genuine lithograph if it didn’t tell next to it? Or if the offer for sale just read:

»Magnificent Chagall lithograph from a strictly limited luxury edition, very rare!«

As you will have noticed, this is one of the many instances where the artist crafted an original lithograph which was then later copied using photo-mechanical or other reproduction techniques.

In this case, both exists: the original lithograph made with stone and a reproduced copy. These copies are usually made using the technique of grano-lithography or chromo-lithography, photo-lithography or the giclée printing technique. At first sight, and especially on pictures on the Internet, all three graphics look more or less the same. Even in reality, all three pictures are of the same size, i.e., the measurements of the impressions are identical.

What if you came across the middle or the right-hand picture, together with the above-cited sentence - wouldn’t you also think automatically: 'Great, this way I’ll get the valuable lithograph I saw recently at an exhibition at a reasonable price'? Wouldn’t you too have fallen for this disconcerting practice that can be observed looking at the imprecise and often ambiguous use of the term "lithograph" by laymen, which is also used by dubious dealers.

People who buy this kind of product and believe they have purchased something valuable at a bargain price must assume a certain amount of joint guilt. Or would you consider an offer that promises a "golden necklace from a limited edition, rare!" and believe you buy a piece of jewellery made of real gold? Surely you wouldn’t.

So you can draw the following conclusion: Just as the term "jewellery" may stand for a real piece of jewellery, but just the same for bling jewellery, the term "lithograph" may represent a valuable original graphic or just a copy (an art print). This means that sales texts must always be read most carefully. If you are unsure about whether you are dealing with an original lithograph or a lithographed reproduction, ask the vendor directly and have the authenticity of the print confirmed in writing.

An examination of print offers available on internet auction platforms can leave you rubbing your eyes in astonishment: Just listing a particular print as an "original" leads to surprisingly high bids - for something that is actually nothing more than a copy made from the original by means of photomechanical reproduction techniques, and therefore, an art print. However, if you look more closely, you can detect the following patterns:

Copies (reprints) of an expensive original are often remarketed by the rights owner (copyright collection agencies), who have them printed on hand-made paper and numbered by the editor before being marketed as "rare limited edition prints". The offers invariably contain reference to the original work. Exaggerated product descriptions are meant to stress "uniqueness". "Certificates of authenticity (COA's)", "expert opinions" (expertises), and alleged references (referring to the original and not to the copy or the forgery on offer) are meant to prove the authenticity or originality of the items on sale.


In general, the degree of CAUTION exercised must increase in line with the popularity of the artist!

The danger of falling for one of the numerous reproductions (art prints), or prints with forged signatures, also increases according to the level of popularity of the artist. Be prepared for the fact that the majority of the printed art available on the internet - "by" Chagall, Picasso, Dali, Miró, Warhol and the like will NOT be original and/or will bear either a forged signature, or one that is merely printed.

Some spectacular cases of fraud serve to remind us how audacious fraudsters can be: In 1992, for example, 75,000 forged prints "by" Dali, Miró, Picasso and Chagall amounting to 1.8 billion dollars were found in a warehouse, printed by order of a well-known New York publisher. Certain dealers, who had stocked up on these prints in the eighties still sell them today. Incidents like this illustrate how precarious and complex it can be to buy graphic art. Do not fall for certificates (COAs), "expert opinions" or similar additions, but stick to the relevant catalogue raisonné by the artist and specialist literature – before making a purchase!

In March 2010 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Marc Chagall’s death, the German newspaper "Die Welt" reported on the ploys of certain obscure art dealers who usually offer their goods on eBay, invariably enhanced with statements like "granolithograph, of exquisite quality, on finest hand-made paper, numbered by the editor". Of course, the offers always include a "COA" or an "expert opinion", which is invariably issued by the dealer him- or herself. Remember, these terms are not protected, and in fact, anybody can claim to be an expert and confirm the "authenticity" of a forgery or a reproduction.

The following checklist has been compiled to reduce the inherent risks when purchasing original graphic art. While this does not completely rule out the possibility of making a 'bad purchase', it makes it much less likely that you will fall victim to making such a purchase.


Definition of an "original print":

There is a variety of definitions, some more and others less exacting, which can serve to distinguish between a real 'original' prints as opposed to art prints (reprints). Previous definitions contained the imperative condition that, not only the artistic statement, but also the reproduction process must have been created or performed by the artists themselves. Current definitions allow for the fact that one cannot dictate to any contemporary artists how they should make and copy their graphic works.

Even well-known artists have experimented with techniques such as offset printing. For example, Joan Miró himself painted over offset prints to produce original lithographs. German artist Horst Antes finished offset matrices (zinc plates, foils and rubber fabric) and, in doing so, invented offset etchings (offset gravure). These works are undoubtedly original graphics and, therefore, they appear in the catalogue raisonné of the particular artist. However, the mere photo-mechanical or digital copying of an existing original (paintings, drawings, collages or graphic art) is always a reproduction and not an original. Accordingly, the current definition for original graphic art or print is as follows:

"If a graphic work (edition) is the only existing realisation of an artistic concept, i.e. it does not exist in any other way, it is an original print."


Checklist for the purchase of original prints:

To ensure that your purchase of a well-known artist’s print is an original and not merely a reproduction, the graphic should appear in the catalogue raisonné (catalogue of graphic work) of that artist. When purchasing the art of a well-known artist, it is essential to insist on a precise indication of the number in the catalogue of graphic work. You should not just take any number for granted, but you should check it out yourself. A graphic that does not appear in the catalogue, or appears only with different specifications, is not an original graphic! On the other hand, graphics of less well-known or aspiring artists are usually originals. Forgery or reproduction would not be worth the effort. Often, a catalogue of works is yet to be compiled, or it is only just in the making.

If there is no indication of a catalogue of works at all, or the print offered is different from the specifications in the catalogue, ask the dealer how he or she can prove the authenticity of the print. Compare the specifications of the dimensions (sheet and image sizes), circulation and dating, of signature and numbering, or inscription, of the type of paper (e.g. watermark) and of the publisher (e.g. dry stamp) meticulously. Any deviation should make you sceptical. Most probably, you are dealing with a reproduction that does not have anything in common with the original print. Especially not the value!

Below you will find some of the most common devices employed to deceive you into buying reprints as "precious rarities" instead of original prints.

Topic / Statement:
Certificates of Authenticity (COA)
Never buy graphics just because of promised certificates of authenticity or expertise. These methods and ideas are perhaps used more by web-sellers exporting from the USA and are meant to give reprints or even restrikes the appearance of authenticity and high value. In fact, COA’s are never issued by a real expert or bona fide art dealer, but mostly by fraudulent sellers.

The only indisputable "Certificate of Authenticity" for print graphics is proof of listing in the works catalogue (catalogue raisonné), which exists for almost all great artists, in connection with a detailed and precise invoice.

Catalogues of works are often expensive, so look for them in exhibition halls or museums where you will usually find well-resourced libraries. We also offer a Works Catalogue Service to our clients or those interested in the authentication of a specific work. none of the bigger or internationally renowned auctioneers or art galleries will give you any other "certificate" than the precise proof from one or more relevant catalogues of works & of their sale/purchase invoice.

"Limited edition!"
"Rare special edition!"
"Collectors’ edition long out off print!"
"Rare antique" (from 1989)
"Strictly limited print on hand-made paper"
"Limited luxury edition"
In this case, statements with a positive connotation are used for sales purposes. In reality, it is the copy of an original by means of photomechanical reproduction (and thus an art print). Often such prints are "limited" like the issue of a daily newspaper.

Often these prints are marketed with handwritten numberings (implying the artist did the numbering him- or herself), hand-made paper is supposed to sell better, and frequently dubious "certificates of authenticity" or "expert opinions" are added.

Numbered but not signed by the artist;
"Hand-written numbering by the editor"
(Hand-written) numbering of a print without the hand-written signature of the artist is usually an indication of an above mentioned reprinted "limited edition" and not of an original edition. Coined signatures and blind embossings with the name of the artist are used to conceal this. It is just another trick to suggest that the artist was personally involved in the production of the work.
"Authorised by the artist"
"Authorised reprint"
"During the lifetime of the artist..."
These are further statements often used by the limited edition industry to make a reproduction of a graphic look like an original (in a legal way!). However, such prints remain merely a copy of the original, no matter how limited or authorised they may be. These reproductions are often difficult for the layperson to identify as the artists, or their descendants have unfortunately contributed to the confusion. Many of the great artists have sold the rights to reproduce the originals during their lifetime (or their descendants have done so after their deaths).

Even though the dimensions have mostly been changed and the copies reduced or enlarged to avoid any confusion with the originals, it has not been done consistently enough. Because of this, image size and sheet size have become most important when comparing a print with the specifications in the catalogues of works.
"cf. Mourlot" or similar
Most of the time it is not the print described in Mourlot's catalogue (or that of other issuers), but a reproduction of the print, or similar reprinted artwork, a reprinted theme, etc. Here the trader is trying to trick you by mentioning a well-known reputable name. If you are being offered a reproduction of an original without the addition "cf." in the works catalogue specification, it is nothing but an attempt to defraud.
"Real Picasso print???"
"Found in the attic"
"Bought at the flea market"
"A real bargain!"
…or "I don‘t know much about the business, but…" suggesting a well-known artist is involved. These are popular tricks to influence your thinking in a particular way – without making untrue statements. You are usually dealing with a fraudster.
"Hand-written signature!" – but no numbering or inscription/designation
Scepticism is the word here, when a copy with a signature is not numbered or inscribed, e.g. "e.a." or "h.c.". Although it might be authentic, for example from an unnumbered edition issued by an art association, it may well be a forgery, which is with good reason hardly ever numbered. Especially audacious dealers "perfect" this "rarity" with an "authentic drawing" or a "personal dedication" by the artist. Such offers might be alluring, but do not get tempted! Their authenticity cannot be proven.
Mounted (firmly glued) in a passe-partout
This is a popular means to make it more difficult, or impossible, for you to examine a print properly, because in most cases, you would damage the print. As a rule, these are art prints, or pages taken out of a book simply displaying a reproduction of the original. Do not confuse them with original graphic works, expensively added to precious artists’ books – and mentioned explicitly as such (and also in the respective catalogue of the artist’s works!).
…are not automatically original lithographs! Frequently, they are photo-mechanical reproductions of originals, and often specified as "offset, grano-, chromo- or photo lithographs" or "lithographic copies". It may also be an original lithograph by another (but not the famous) artist. An example is Charles Sorlier, who was ordered by Marc Chagall to lithograph some of his paintings. These are original lithographs by Charles Sorlier after Marc Chagall, and not original lithographs of the great artist himself, and therefore are not mentioned in the catalogue of his works.
"Zinc etchings"
"Photo gravures"
"Collotypes / Phototypes"
"Stencils / pochoirs"
...with or without "original" are only some of the descriptors for printed matter that always(!) describe or disguise some reproduction technique. As a rule, these are not original graphics - with few exceptions (see above under "Horst Antes"). Even though they are made by a "well-tried, sophisticated printing technique from the 19th century", they remain mere copies – reproduced photo-mechanically – and they will never bear the expressiveness or the value of original prints.

In conclusion, we want to stress that we do not object to beautifully made art prints - as long as they are offered as such, and are not sold at prices more appropriate for the original.

©Artistshome e.K. Fine Art
Owner: Christine Blenner, qualified expert on European printed graphic art after 1945, member of the German Association of Technical Experts and Evaluators Inc. (DGSV e.V.)