Attribution vs. Identification

Attribution is a term often misunderstood and/or misused. The meaning is sometimes confused with, or intended to be a substitute for the word identification. An attribution remains only the subjective declaration or opinion of the researcher(s), even after careful research of a unique unmarked item is conducted and documented, with an aim toward arriving at a credible conclusion. Further, this opinion remains subject to change, if or when additional scholarly information becomes available and dictates a change should be made. An attribution will always retain a reasonable element of doubt, either due to the rarity of the item, atypical physical characteristics, or other factors. If not, it could be said the item has been identified as being by such and such a maker, artist, etc., rather than attributed to. Identification, on the other hand, will determine the exact nature of the item and its origins. It is measurable, scientific and objective.

A collector who finds an unsigned painting or mysterious, unmarked piece of jewelry or decorative arts will want to attribute these items to a particular artist or maker. The process of arriving at a professional attribution is not a simple task, and requires more than mere guesswork or hopefulness on the part of the seller. There is a standard that should be observed concerning the placement of the terms in a listing for antiques, collectibles, jewelry and fine arts. Many types of collected objects will be completely unmarked but, even so, can often be identified through expert knowledge or proper research. On the other hand, though an attribution, properly assigned, should give one a high level of certainty that the item in question was probably produced by the person or company being suggested as its maker, attribution is not generally regarded in the same light as a definitive identification.

Many types of items will always be difficult to clearly identify as to maker, if not impossible. But offering an attribution or suggestion as to who the maker might be is an accepted practice that has been employed in the trade for many years; for example, by respected auction houses when cataloging item lots. But using a possible maker's name in a printed auction catalog is a practice that was institutionalized long before the advent of search engines, which rely on keyword usage for proper direction.

Attributions printed on paper in catalog item lot titles, or offered by authors within their books, do not tend to have the potential to immediately and dynamically affect easy public accessibility to similar catalogs offered by competing auction houses or the printed pages of another writer's books. Certainly the practice does not have the same effect as specific keyword usage in a title or description on an e-commerce website which affects where an item will be displayed and ranked in an online search.

When a knowledgeable seller says, "possibly", "attributed to" or "believed to be" in a listing this is, in effect, the same as a dealer new to selling collectibles saying, "McCoy??" or "Roseville Like" in the title of an unknown planter they are unable to identify. Or using a title like, "Beautiful Depression Glass Plate" and then deducting from the value of that information by saying, "I think this might be Depression Glass", in their description. Generally, search engines rank items higher based on title, category and in some cases descriptive keywords, so using keywords in a title, category or description that are not definitive or do not actually relate to the item (which is the case if any question remains about an identification) is frowned upon. It pollutes the search results, returning many items unrelated to what the individual is searching for. Credible online e-commerce sites selling antiques, collectibles, jewelry and fine arts generally discourage the use of unrelated terms in a listing and some actually forbid their shop owners to engage in this practice.

An item made by a particular person or company, can be listed as such, identified as theirs without equivocation, even if it is unsigned or the identifying labels have been removed. To some extent, we must be willing to believe that all shop owners are honest and capable in regards to the merchandise they wish to offer. But, if an attribution, an educated guess, is all that can be supplied, identifying keywords like a maker's name should be placed only within the description of the item in question and not in an item title or catalog category; and it should be clear that the item is being attributed to a particular maker based on certain findings and not identified as made by a particular maker. A listing should remain so until such time as a solid identification is made. Mentioning the name of a possible maker in the item description is generally acceptable if there is some obvious comparison that can be made that suggests such a possibility, or attribution.


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