A client once told me during the process of acquiring new works of art that she would not purchase a painting unless it was signed. I understood her to mean that she only wanted to buy an original, verifiable work of art as well as that she wanted to purchase the best available work by a particular artist — and that she felt that a signature on the painting would meet those criteria. If only it were so simple. I explained to my client that a signature does not always add value to a work and that there are many unsigned works of art out there which are extremely important, beautiful and valuable and to discount them simply for a lack of a signature is unnecessary.
For example, for some artists who always signed their work it would be the rare piece which was unsigned. The piece may, however, be widely accepted by experts and scholars as the work of the artist and the lack of signature may not cause a dimunition in value or uncertainty of attribution. In other words, sometimes a lack of signature does not raise a red flag.
In other cases in which an artist always signed her work and a single piece is unsigned this may present a question as to authenticity or a reduction in value – however, this is a relatively rare instance. These questions, as well, are often best put to the experts in the field, and a buyer should not always discount a painting simply because it is unsigned. It is not wrong to question a lack of signature, but the answer is not always dispositive. Exceptional works by famous artists are discovered regularly – and many of them are unsigned which is why they have remained “unknown” or unattributed for many years. Think about this… Wouldn’t it be fantastic to discover that you had purchased a very important unsigned work for very little money simply because no one recognized what it was for lack of a signature?
In addition, some artists never sign(ed) their work as a matter of personal style, so for these artists it would be best and add particular certainty and value if the work were unsigned rather than signed.
The key to all of this is that you want to look for a signature that is consistent with the particular artist’s style and in keeping with how she normally handled using her initials, signature, stamp or nothing at all. Simply saying that you will only purchase signed works may unnecessarily discount many valuable and enjoyable options. If you still have reservations some dealers will provide a guarantee of authenticity.