As photographers, controlling the reproduction of our creations is a tough, tough challenge, and it’s no secret that deciding on a way to validate the authenticity of our artwork is daunting. Some while back, I learned through various channels that my photograph “Vince Connolly, Pleasanton Rodeo” (the image shown here) had been printed numerous times…just not by me. So while the people who owned the print had no idea their “limited edition” wasn’t an edition at all, I knew fully the people who decided to recreate the image without my permission did so illegally. It was at that point I realized my signature, edition number and dry mounting weren’t enough. Those could be faked, or ignored.
So, now I needed a more robust method of certifying my work as authentic, and I was struggling to find a solution—until I discovered Hahnemühle’s Certificate of Authenticity program. It’s one powerful step among a larger process in ensuring any extant prints in the art world are actually mine, and as I prepare a set of prints for a museum exhibition opening this spring, I’m using and this series of posts as an opportunity to teach others how to protect their art.
Before I continue with the lesson, I’ll ask for your help up front: When you choose to purchase printing papers such as Hanhemühle, Red River, Epson, Canson or Moab, please do so using the links on this blog. Dick Blick Art Materials provides all the papers listed except for Red River, which provides its paper direct. Whenever you purchase by clicking through from this blog to these sites, it helps pay for all the materials, ink, time and technology I need in order to provide you with these posts. Thanks in advance.
Up front, I also prefer to disclose that I’m a brand agnostic; if I choose to use a company’s materials or equipment, it’s because I’ve found them to be up to my own high standards (just ask my students), and I don’t stick to just one brand. I think that’s important for my readers, too, as it’s never any help to read someone’s work that is a parrot voice. If there’s a problem with something I’m reviewing, you’ll know about it. As one writing professor in my undergrad said about all life, perfection is something for which we strive, but seldom attain. The same is true for any product.
I have been working with my framer, Marcella Maley, for quite a few years. Moreover, I don’t pull punches when it comes to quality—that’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way—and frankly, I consider her one of the best framers anywhere. That’s a sentiment curators and customers have echoed again and again to me, and as I’ve told them, for Marcy, if it’s not perfect, it’s not okay. So when we started putting our heads together on a truly archival certification method for my work, it took some time and research to come up with a solution that would satisfy both of us. After all, we were searching for a method that would stand up to centuries, not decades.
Archiving is a white elephant. No method is perfect, and often artists must balance archival standards with protection of their interests (e.g., “Stop people from duping my stuff and selling it”). I visited the Texas Tech Ansel Adams exhibit this last December, with the purpose of seeing the work, but also examining his method of authentication. I’ve always been pained by signing prints, either on front or back, but was faced with few alternatives. I have always archival dry-mounted, and I knew Adams did, too—on archival mat board—but I wanted to see the final product.
At the exhibition, I saw how he mounted the prints, then signed the mat board in pencil. The frame and mat board still revealed the signature, but by signing the board and not the print, Adams maintained the pristine quality of the image. I liked the look, and felt confident in the method, in an archival sense. When I returned home, I began talking to Marcy about how to proceed, and everything was fine until we reached the problem of duplication again.
Serendipitously, I had been reminded of Hahnemühle’s Certificate of Authenticity and Registration program while buying more paper for the studio. I had been introduced to the system the year before, prior to my “Vince Connolly” duplication woes. Now, I saw the point, and Carol Boss, Hahnemuhle USA’s marketing director, kindly provided me with a test box. What follows in this three-part series are the results of my first-hand experience with the product, and overall, I’m very impressed. I have some suggestions for improvements in a few areas, but when used properly, I think this is most likely the best option on the market for artists looking to protect their work from unscrupulous duplicators.
This first installment in the series will detail what’s in the box and the process as I printed the first certificate and registered the print. I’ll include detail shots of the product, and also images as I navigated those first steps. Part two will continue with the process as I affix the holograms to the print and certificate, sign the mat board, and label the print. Finally, part three will post in April as the gala opening of the show occurs, and we can see the certified print on display, as well as read collectors’ thoughts about the system.
All-in-all, considering I’ve struggled finding an ideal solution to the problem of protecting the integrity of my art, I’m guessing I’m not alone. As I move into the rest of this post, I’d ask that readers share their own experiences with this in the comments section below, so that we can all learn from each other.
Opening the Box
This is not a set of mailing labels or big-box-store paper—that became immediately clear when the kit arrived. Rather, the box itself (see the front cover in Figure 01) makes it very clear this is a professional system, and the price does, too: You won’t find it for a price lower that $89.00 anywhere. If that price makes you wary, keep in mind you’re not getting a box of paper for your inkjet-scanner-fax combo printer. This is a professional system for artists who require a trustworthy and reputable system for ensuring the legitimacy of their products. The box contains (see Figure 02):
- 25 archival, 100% cotton, mould-made deckle-edged certificates with watermarks and uv fibers, packed in protective plastic
- 25 sets of matched-numbers, tamper-proof authentication holograms
- 1 quality assurance certificate numbered with the examiners’ identification
Online is the fourth part of the system: the MyArtRegistry at Hahnemühle’s headquarters, where artists can create an account, register their hologram id numbers, and provide the details for each piece of registered artwork.
Both the holograms and certificates struck me as being of the utmost archival quality. Honestly, I felt pretty important holding the paper in my hands; the quality is impressive, but the deckle-edge is simply wonderful (see Figure 03). The certificates are almost too nice for printing a, well, er…certificate. A nice bonus from that quality is the assurance the certificate provides a curator or patron when buying a piece of art—they are immediately aware of the seriousness of the transaction—and the numbered holograms seal the deal (yep, I made a pun).
The security watermark on the certificate is also impressive, especially when backlit (see Figure 04). All we have as artists is our final work, and when people pay many hundreds of dollars for a piece, that last bit of aesthetic appeal, as well as artistic integrity, goes a long way.
I had one concern as I examined the contents of the box: I wanted more information. Why? I’m not sure how the adhesive for the holograms stands up to archival standards, and I think Hahnemühle could do itself a favor by providing more information in that area. Adhesives are tough things, and most aren’t good for the back of any artwork. However, as this is a flagship product for a company renowned for its archival materials, my sense is that in spite of the absence of information, the adhesive is of museum-grade archival standards, and so this is more of an assurance concern for customers, not a quality issue.
Making the Certificate
The image I’m using during this three-part series is Vulnerability, one of four images going in a museum exhibition in a few months (see Figure 05). While I don’t use Hahnemühle paper for every print, I do for many, and here I am using Museum Etching 350 gsm paper for the entire 20-print series of this photograph. I printed the image a few weeks ago, and have been keeping it in the safe hands of Marcy Maley since then as she prepares to dry-mount the image on archival mat board, allowing me to sign and number the mat, and then affix both the artist’s label and the numbered hologram on the back.
With the print out of my hands for the moment, I went to work preparing the certificate for the image. If you’re wondering where to start when making your own, Hahnemühle provides a convenient template on its website. I chose to modify the suggested certificate verbiage a bit, but in general, I’d suggest including a thumbnail image on the certificate, and text including the following information (I’ve added the Vulnerability certificate data in the parentheses):
- Artwork Title (Vulnerability)
- Edition Information (No. 1 of 20)
- Artwork Size (in either inches or centimeters, 6 in. x 9 in.)
- Artwork Format (Pigment Print on Archival Cotton Rag)
- Artwork Description (The accompanying mounted, signed, and numbered print and this certificate are each certified through a hologram carrying the unique number 222524. This fine art print is the first of a limited edition of 20 prints signed and numbered by the artist. Released on March 3, 2016, on Hahnemühle Museum Etching, 350 gsm, using pigmented UltraChrome K3 inks from Epson. Hastings, Nebraska, March 3, 2016. Brett L. Erickson. Photographer.)
This is important: Print the certificate as you would any other fine art print, using the same pigment inkjet printer you do for your photographs. In this way, you ensure not only a long life for the print, but a long life for the equally important proof that the print is real. Store it and deliver it in an archival envelope. I use Apollo buffered envelopes available at Light Impressions (available here).
After placing the Vulnerability certificate in the envelope, I placed the envelope in one of my storage files, and then moved on to registering the print and certificate on Hahnemühle’s MyArtRegistry site.
Registering the Print
The link to the MyArtRegistry took me to a simple page with a carousel image gallery, a navigation sub-menu, and a search feature for artists, certificate numbers, and registered prints (see Figure 06). In the sub-navigation, I clicked Artist Login, and on the bottom of the following page, selected Click here to registrate.
On the Registrate page, I provided all the necessary account information, accepted the terms, and clicked Create Account. The site then provided me with a successful registration message, and asked me to confirm the registration in my e-mail account (see Figure 07). After confirming, I logged back in.
Upon logging into my newly-created account, I clicked Add a New Print in the left-hand menu. While the print registration page was sparse (see Figure 08), it did give me enough latitude in the form fields to properly note the same details I included in the certificate. The system message below the artwork image box suggests only 300 x 300 pixels for the image, but I uploaded a 72-dpi, 1100-pixel-wide image with ease. Note that I included a detailed description of the image, the size, the paper, the edition, and the print date in the Description field (see Figure 08).
I clicked Save, and the I was taken to the List/Edit page, where I was able to review my entry, make any necessary changes, and review the uploaded image. If everything is correct, at the bottom of the page is a History section; to register the hologram numbers, click Manage Cert.
(To be honest, I was a bit confused during much of the registration process, and as I teach Web design in addition to photography, that means I’m usually a pretty quick learner when it comes to online materials. But this interface isn’t very intuitive, and while I’m very impressed with the certificate and hologram materials, I think artists would be better served by an improved site.)
In the next page, nothing showed up; I realized after a moment that was because I had yet to register any certificates with the new print, so I clicked Add New Certificate (see Figure 09).
I was then taken to the List/Edit Print: Create New Certificate for “Vulnerability” page, where I entered the hologram/Certificate number, the hologram/Certificate Type (Rooster or Triton symbol, found on the hologram; see Figure 10), and the Certification Date. Note that there are also spaces for Sold Date and Sold To information, which is extremely helpful for documenting where the artwork ultimately resides (though I have some concerns regarding this part of the system; see the Conclusions and Comments section below for details).
Once the information is entered, I clicked Create Certificate, and the process was completed. I will now be able to log on at any time to manage the details of the print as it moves through the signing, exhibition, and (hopefully) sales process, of which I’ll keep you abreast in subsequent posts.
Conclusions and Comments
On the positive (light zones) side, I love the paper, holograms, and the security of Hahnemühle’s system. It’s about as good as we can get in the world of photography in an age where piracy is rampant. As I expected from such a prestigious company, the materials and quality of production of the physical products in the system are outstanding, and I can wholly recommend them on those counts. I have complete faith in this aspect of the product, and I think it will meet the approval of patrons, museums, and customers.
I have three concerns (dark zones), though I think these can be easily fixed by Hahnemühle (and should be as soon as possible).
Foremost is the interface at MyArtRegistry. It’s not always an intuitive system at the best times, and it’s downright confusing at the worst of times. It needs work, most importantly because it needs to inspire confidence that the system is robust in its documentation and implementation. Right now, it doesn’t, and museum curators and patrons are less likely to see this as a valid registry. I think it does a disservice to the impressive quality of the physical product.
Moreover, I think there needs to be a way to allow patrons who have purchased a certified artwork to log in and alter the details of a given piece if it is sold outright or changes hands through estate means, since this is a critical part of establishing proper provenance. If we’re using this system, it means our work is collected, and if it’s collected, it will probably be sold or inherited at some point. If Hahnemühle plans on keeping this system in perpetuity, an allowance for the cold realities of the art market need to be taken into account. Art moves; when it does, it must be documented.
Neither of these issues is a tough fix, and neither will stop me from using the product. There isn’t anything on the market that’s better, and while there’s room for improvement in the virtual realm, I think the physical materials and method of assurance are simply fantastic.
My last concern is I think Hahnemühle could do itself a favor by providing more information in the area of specifying the archival nature of the hologram adhesive. In spite of the absence of information, I’m certain the adhesive is of museum-grade archival standards, but I feel this is an important assurance for customers. This product’s customers are established artists and curators to whom such information matters.
I want to thank Carol Boss at Hahnemühle USA for giving me the opportunity to review this product—she’s truly a joy to know, wonderful to work with, and an honorable person. I can’t offer a better complement to anyone.
The Vulnerability print is being dry mounted as this posts, and I’ll soon go to see Marcy Maley to complete the next step of the process.After I do, look for the next installment in this series as I use Hahnemühle’s Certificate of Authenticity system in a significant museum show.
Until then, just remember: I hope your best print, is your next print.