Fact Check: Signed By The Artist?

As we know, people new to handling decorative arts objects can sometimes mistake mass produced transfer printing for hand painted decoration. This occurs for several different reasons. The lovely portrait or floral image they are considering may be so well done it tricks their untrained eye into believing it was painted by hand. Another incorrect assumption often happens for similar reasons. Based on the fact that a decorative effect bears what appears to be the signature of an artist, many decorated items, those that are transfer printed and, on occasion, some that are hand painted, will be described as 'signed' by that artist, when in fact they were not.

Why was it 'signed'?

It helps to know that popular artworks were frequently copied and made into engravings, transfers or decals, and that those have been employed in excess of a couple of hundred years now to decorate porcelain. Some are even still used to create decorative objects today.

An experienced collector or dealer can usually recognize some images at first glance, having seen the same decoration on various different forms over a period of years. And something they are also conscious of, but which a novice often doesn't readily know, is that when the name of an artist appears on a copy of their work, its appearance is only acknowledgment of the fact that it was they who painted the original work of art. In other words, an artist's name on a plate or vase won’t always mean that they actually decorated that specific item.

Some older images may in truth be hand-painted, but painted by an unknown factory artist. Or, a manufacturer's art department created derivative images 'inspired' by the popular works of a famous artist. These, too, may be found 'signed,' albeit only as an homage.

Identify the Possible

If taking the time to look up an artist's name to see if he was well known or his paintings valuable, the observer should also take the time to consider additional aspects about the item that the artist appears to have ‘signed.’ The age of the underlying surface, for instance. Logically, is it feasible that an 18th century artist would be able to decorate and ‘sign’ a porcelain plate if the plate itself wasn't made until 1885? To date, no record has been found indicating that the ghosts of famous artists were on staff in any manufacturer's decorating department. But, if the descriptions of some items are any indication, famous artists painted and printed and affixed their signature to things long after they were, in fact, dead.

By way of example, the bucolic paintings of the French painter Jean Antoine Watteau, which often depicted the graceful figure of a man courting a beautiful woman, were very popular long ago. In 1741, Meissen purchased a set of copperplate engravings by Watteau and used them as creative templates for producing services of dinnerware at the factory. But, Jean Antoine Watteau died in 1721. He hand painted none of those services for Meissen, himself. Nor did he paint any of the multitudes of later porcelain objects produced by many other companies in other countries that can be found on today’s market, bearing his name. Even so, if the name ‘Watteau' is found somewhere on the surface of a courting scene, whether transfer printed or hand painted that piece frequently will be described as "by the famous artist Antoine Watteau." As illustrated, however, applying that phrase, or others like, "Signed by the artist." or "Signed 'Watteau," when describing it would be inaccurate. Use of such misnomers has the potential of misleading an equally uninformed buyer. And that is never a good thing.

The same is true of the work of many other artists of note: Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), Francois Boucher (1703-1770), Jean Honore Fragonard (1732-1806). Always keep in mind, that to help sell the items they produced down through the years, many manufacturers copied the paintings and the style of painting of popular artists to create transfers for printing on their wares, and to make creative templates for factory artists to copy by hand.

How to Apply

Depending on the nomenclature used in describing an artwork, there can be a big difference in meaning, and a big difference in value, as well. Fine Art aficionados know that if a work of art is described as ‘by’ an individual artist, the meaning of that statement is ‘this item was painted by this artist.’ If an artwork can only be described as ‘after’ or ‘in the style of’ an artist, however, the meaning is ‘similar to works painted by this artist, but not by their hand.’ Dealers in the Decorative Arts should likewise recognize the potential that exists for incorrect assumptions to be made based on their casual use of ‘by so and so’ in their item descriptions.

Remember, even if an article was painted entirely by hand and bears the name of a famous artist, it very well may be that the item can only be correctly described as, 'in the style of' that artist. And if the decoration on an item is only 'in the style of' or 'after' a famous artist, and not actually 'by' them, their name should not appear in the title or category of an item, which are reserved for keywords identifying authentic objects.

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