Examining Hahnemühle’s Certificate of Authenticity System: Initial Impressions

Vince Connolly, Pleasanton Rodeo
Vince Connolly, Pleasanton Rodeo: One of my prints that has been reprinted, but not with my permission.

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.


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Visit Red River PaperBefore 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.

Introduction

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.

Figure 01. Hahnemühle's Certificate of Authenticity and Registration Program.
Figure 01. Hahnemühle’s Certificate of Authenticity and Registration Program.

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

Figure 02. The kit contains certificates, hologram sets, and an inspection certificate.
Figure 02. The kit contains certificates, hologram sets, and an inspection certificate.

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.

 

 

Figure 03. The certificate's deckle edge.
Figure 03. The certificate’s deckle edge.

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).

 

 

 

Figure 04. The backlit watermark within the certificate.
Figure 04. The backlit watermark within the certificate.

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

Figure 05. My Vulnerability image.
Figure 05. My Vulnerability image.

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.

 

 

The certificate emerging from the printer.
The certificate emerging from the printer.

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

Figure 06. The MyArtRegistry Image Carousel.
Figure 06. The MyArtRegistry Image Carousel.

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.

Figure 07. Registration Message.
Figure 07. Registration Message.

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.

 

 

 

 

Figure 08. The Add a New Print Page.
Figure 08. The Add a New Print Page.

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.)

09. Certification List Page.
09. Certification List Page.

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).

Figure 10. Registering the Certificate.
Figure 10. Registering the Certificate.

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

Zone Ranking for Hahnemühle Artwork Certification SystemSo now the gist of my initial impressions of Hahnemühle’s Certificate of Authenticity system.

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.

 

10 thoughts

  1. Wow. This is a lot to think through — it’s really thorough and well presented. When you have the vendor links in place, I’ll be happy to use them.

    1. Jack,

      Thanks so much for your kind words and support of the blog, and I’ve added the in-text vendor links. What is most rewarding for me is knowing that you found the information helpful and understandable–the authentication process is, I think, one of the toughest challenges facing photographic artists. If you have suggestions or requests for upcoming reviews or lessons, please let me know!

      All the best,

      Brett

  2. Very nice write up, it looks like a great system. I was wondering what your thoughts were of using this hahnemuhle branded system when not printing on hahnemuhle paper, I am quite happy with my paper and don’t want to switch, but am concerned that the hahnemuhle watermark in the certificate and logo on the sticker will be an inconsistency with my different branded paper.

    1. Ivo,

      I think that’s a strong point, and one worth considering. Even though the paper you’re using for your prints is a different brand, I think the key here is assuring your customers and collectors that they’re getting a genuine print. This is insurance for you and them, and I see it as brand neutral. The Hahnemühle certificates and holograms are quite robust, so I see no issue with multiple-brand combinations.

      All my best,

      Brett

  3. If you don’t print on hahnemuhle paper but want to use their watermarked certificates and branded logo on the sticker, you can reference the brand of paper used to print the photograph as part of the description of the artwork. This resolves the issue of inconsistency and any doubts a buyer might have.

    1. Michael,

      Thank you for your contribution! I agree completely, and Carol Boss, Hahnemuhle USA’s marketing director, has informed me the holograms are meant to be brand-neutral. In certain cases, I print on papers other than Hahnemuhle, but still use the holograms; I specify on my certificates of authenticity the paper being used.

      Thanks again, and keep in touch!

      B

  4. Hi Brett, (Apologies if this is a double post – my original post disappeared after several days of awaiting moderation)

    Thank you for the post – I’ll use your affiliate link when I buy.

    When you apply the hologram to the back of the print, I assume that means on the back of the mount board since you dry mount your work? I ask because I want to add B-flute corrugated backer board to my prints to assure they don’t warp (warping is not usually a problem, but I cannot control the humidity of my customer’s display environment).

    Do you think it’s a significant disadvantage to cover the hologram with a backer board? Thank you, Jay

    1. Hi Jay!

      I apologize for my long absence from the blog; I completed my PhD in December and have slowly been digging out of the pile of work left unattended during my time completing my dissertation.

      That’s a great question. I apply the hologram (as well as my archival studio stamp, penciled-in print information, and my signature) directly on the back of the print. In the past, I dry-mounted my prints for display, just as I was taught in my photography schooling. However, I have more recently moved to archival mounting corners and linen mat tape when displaying my work, on recommendation from two photographers I deeply respect (and who I’m lucky enough to call friends), Kate Breakey and George Nobechi. Both are extremely discerning regarding archivability, and I’ve come to agree with them on this point.

      The backer board is another good question, and one with which I wrestle, too. I’ve developed a nuanced answer to this: Ask the customer, if possible, if he or she is buying a pre-framed piece. Then, ask about the environment in which the piece will be displayed, and make the judgment. Ansel Adams dry-mounted, but had few, if any, concerns about puckering, due to the nature of gelatin paper. Pigment printing is quite different depending on the paper; some RCs may pucker (but why print on these, anyway?). High-humidity customer environment? Consider backing, or select a high-GSM paper, sheet-cut paper that is resistant to any warping. If you use roll paper and want to negate curling in further efforts to avoid warping in the frame, use a dry mount press with release paper on both sides of the print at 180° for 9-10 minutes in order to flatten the print. However, that doesn’t do much good if you’re shipping in a tube.

      How I would address this in the end? Apply the hologram to the print in the most archival method possible, depending on your presentation method. For instance, if you’re using Crescent Museum Board (the best), then apply all information and the hologram to the back of the board. No board mounting? Back of the print.

      Again, thanks for your patience and great questions, and keep in touch!

      B

      1. Hi Brett!

        Congratulations on completing the PhD!

        I appreciate your thoughtful and helpful reply.

        Sorry for the late response. I’ve been trying to decide what to say because your moving away from dry-mounting has generated some angst 🙂 I had long been weighing dry-mount vs. not-dry-mount methods and I thought I had come to a conclusion to go the dry-mount route.

        I will not be using RC paper for any prints I sell. I’m using 300 GSM Hahnemuehle and it is not roll paper. And definitely not shipping in a tube!

        Given that, do you think it’s reasonably safe to say that a hinge-mounted or corners-mounted matted and framed print will not warp under most common display conditions?

        Thank you,

        Jay

        1. Jay,

          Thanks for the best wishes! The best PhD is the done PhD…

          That’s a challenging question regarding corners. Let me get back to you on this.

          Best,

          B

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