Appraisal Definitions and Terms: Identity vs Authentication

New clients sometimes come to me with the belief that an appraisal is the same as an authentication.

It is not, and it is important to understand why: Appraisers base their conclusions on the readily apparent identity of an item. If an item includes a separate authentication, so much the better, but an appraiser should not authenticate what they’re appraising.

This means we have exercised due diligence regarding identity, based upon our personal knowledge and previous experience with like or similar items, and with sufficient knowledge of how the items are treated in the market between knowledgeable buyers and sellers.

How is this different from an authentication?

The basic definition we use for identification in the International Society of Appraisers is this: Identification is the scientific determination of quantitative or intrinsic elements.

This readily apparent identity means that special emphasis has been given to the characteristics that impact an item’s value or cost – both positive and negative. Intrinsic characteristics like dimensions, form, materials, weight, condition, construction techniques, signs of wear and age, damage, etc, all speak to identity.

The presence or absence of certain other qualitative characteristics may also impact value, depending on the item itself. These basics, combined with the distinguishing value characteristics, allow an appraiser the ability to determine a relative value by ranking an item alongside similar items.

So how on earth does that differ from authentication?

Identification is just the first step in any authentication process, with authentication being the scholarly determination of qualitative or extrinsic opinions. The key here is the term extrinsic, meaning something outside the essential nature of a thing.

Authentication is conducted through objective analysis and establishes specific identity by applying past and present knowledge to identified characteristics of an object compared with other objects of like kind with specific identities in common. One important way is through the verification of provenance appended to an item, which is why I always ask prospective clients to pull together any provenance they might have for their items.

So, we see that authentication is rarely definitive, being always ‘in the opinion of the authenticator,’ and always subject to revision if new evidence were to arise. Proving ‘genuineness’ is subjective, so guarantees of authenticity can be misleading and rest on the authenticator’s reputation.

So, with all this in mind, appraisers seldom authenticate – and we do not do it in conjunction with our own reports. Authentication should always be done by an outside expert so that the appraiser may maintain no bias toward the client or property.

We apply due diligence regarding identity and seek authentications when they are required. Not everything we appraise requires authentication, but everything does require proper identification.

Of course, I’ve had clients, trying to save money, later attempt to use my appraisal as an authentication, which of course was not an intended use and therefore rendered the report null and void.

What does it all mean?

Recently a social media contact asked me what happens to artwork that is determined to be fake, reproductions, forgeries, etc?

Well, of course, no one wants to discover their item is a fake or forgery because, as you would expect, value tends to collapse. At that point, the current owner will almost certainly seek other reputable opinions to counter a negative declaration or might seek to get their investment back from the point of purchase or acquisition. Of course, this latter option can be difficult – as you might imagine.

In terms of art, once something is declared reproduced, forged or fake by a reputable authenticator, the object may become severely ‘burned.’ The term is also used to describe high-value artwork that fails to sell at a public sale.

Of course, as outlined above, there can be serious objections to and contrary assertions answering such a declaration by other reputable experts or authenticators. These arguments may last years or even decades! The value of the item during this period tends to be uncertain.

In the meantime, the item might simply become a lesser wall hanging or display in a home, given away, or sold for whatever the owner can get just to get the humiliating piece out of their sight, etc. Everyone will react in their own way.

For more on what happens to forged/fake/reproduction artwork, check out this timely piece in The Guardian.

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