Chapter 12: IS IT SIGNED?

Here’s a riddle for you: how is collecting Picasso prints different from baseball cards? Answer: the baseball players’ autographs diminish the value of the cards!

Next time you visit the Musée Picasso, try to find a Picasso signature on any painting or drawing. Guess what? You won’t! Not a single one. At least not as far as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve looked pretty carefully. Picasso, it is said, was concerned with the possibility of theft. Accordingly, he signed unique works (paintings and drawings) only at the point of sale. In so doing, he sent a clear message that any such unsigned work on the market was potentially stolen. In addition, at the time of his death, more than half of his creations remained in his personal estate. (He clearly kept his favorite works for himself, by the way.) Stacks of prints, including many unsigned ones, were discovered on the floor of one or more of his villas. As you can imagine, Picasso had many better things to do than sign his prints, a task he must have found rather tedious.

Historically, prior to the Impressionists, artists generally did not sign their prints by hand. In the twentieth century, hand-signing became conventional, and the market decided to accord a substantial premium to hand-signed prints. It may serve you well, however, to remember that this bias is entirely arbitrary. Remember the baseball cards! Just because it’s arbitrary, however, doesn’t mean it’s likely to change. Unfortunately, the bias seems rather deeply entrenched. But it provides buying opportunities for those who can look beyond the autograph.

Interestingly, there is no such bias with his paintings.  Some time ago a statistical analysis was performed of various parameters regarding the sale of Picasso’s paintings at auction.  Its results are that the presence or absence of a signature has no statistically significant bearing on the price.  To wit, “Signature provides to the consumer aesthetic-prestige services, and is expected to be important, especially when visible.  We could not control for the visibility effect, but we find that the mere existence of the signature does not have any significant influence on the price.” (Corrinna Czujack, “Picasso Paintings at Auction, 1963-1994”, Journal of Cultural Economics Vol. 21, No. 3, Sept., 1997, pp. 229-247)  Note of course that the data set for this paper was limited to Picasso paintings.  As we know, the market price of original Picasso prints is very much affected by the presence or absence of his signature, but the gap between the two seems to be narrowing.  Certainly the recent sales (in 2007, the time of writing of this addendum) of several rare pieces at stratospheric prices would seem to indicate as much.

One advantage of sticking with unsigned prints is that you end up with twice as many, pound for pound. That is because in the case of the same print, a signed impression generally sells for around twice the price of an unsigned one. In this context, it is worth noting that unsigned Picassos appreciate apace with signed ones, just as Picasso prints appreciate apace with his oils.

As for those prints that Picasso signed in the plate or on the stone, like the yellow Balzacs (Bloch 715-722) or the Femme Assise, aka Contrée (Bloch 362), they tend to be priced like unsigned pieces, but they bear the signature of the artist every bit as much the product of his own hand as those prints that he signed on the paper. So, to my mind, they’re a double bargain! The signatures in the plate as well as the inked estate stamp are generally much darker than the typical pencil signatures, and, in the case of the signatures in the plate, such as the Balzacs and Contrée, tend to be more interesting.

A word about the estate stamp signatures: After Picasso’s death, his heirs authorized the creation of a stamp of Picasso’s signature, which his printer applied to various posthumous editions. Since there are numerous unsigned editions, it may at first seem random that some prints were selected for this treatment but not others. A likelier explanation is that the estate-stamped prints are simply those that Picasso had not released to his dealer, Galerie Louise Leiris, for distribution and sale.  At least that is the case with Caisse à remords (Box of Remorse), a raft of 45 etchings, drypoints, and aquatints whose creation spanned many years (1919 – 1955) but that were printed in 1961. Picasso kept the edition of 50 of each of these prints in a large case but never got around to signing them.  The most significant of the series is Tête de Femme (B250; see “WHAT’S NOT THERE” ).

An old exhibition catalogue of this series from the now defunct Reiss-Cohen Gallery (NY; 1982) included an interesting insight into the odd title of this series, in the form of a quote from M. Maurice Jardot of Galerie Louise Leiris: “From the date when the engravings…were printed in 1961 until his death in 1973, Picasso was constantly occupied with other works and took no care of signing these prints. He felt remorse and that is why he talked frequently about the case containing these engravings, calling it ‘Caisse à remords.'”

There are two different estates stamps that I know of.  One of them was used most of the time, for example for all of Caisse à remords as well as the 156 Series.  They are beautiful and generally darker and therefore more visible than his typically graphite pencil signatures. But they do not add nearly as much value as an authentic pencil signature does to his prints.

It is also noteworthy that, even if most of an edition is unsigned, parts of the edition, sometimes even substantial parts, may have been signed.   It is possible that Picasso signed an occasional impression after its sale when the new owner caught him on a good day and begged him to do so. There certainly are exceptional impressions that he signed, even when most of the edition was unsigned. The most common example of this is the unique bon à tirer (or, ready to pull) impression that characterizes almost every print edition. It is the very impression that the artist examined and to which he gave his approval by inscribing those words upon it in his own handwriting, thereby indicating his approval of how that impression looks and that the edition should be printed just like it. These bon à tirer impressions command a premium, because Picasso clearly handled, inspected, and approved them, and scribbled a few extra words on them.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to forge a signature than to forge a work of art. Forged signatures are not uncommon among Picasso prints, especially in those cases in which a significant part of an edition is known to have remained unsigned in Picasso’s lifetime. The most important and prevalent example of this instance is The Vollard Suite. The edition of this famous series comprised several parts: three impressions on parchment signed and numbered in red ink (of which those numbered 2 are all in the Paris Picasso Museum), fifty impressions on larger sheets of paper, and 260 impressions on smaller sheets of paper. Picasso signed some of each of these last two editions in pencil, but no one knows how many. Starting in the 1950s, Petiet brought Picasso  batches of prints to be signed, starting with those which Petiet considered to be the most important. Thus, Picasso signed more impressions of the better prints in the Suite than of the less accomplished works. It is also well-known that some of the signatures on these prints today are forged. Unfortunately, as is all too familiar to unscrupulous sellers, a well-forged signature is as good as gold.

Although, many of the Picassos that we own are not hand-signed, these are generally the impressions I wish to keep for ourselves. I tend to seek out signed images, especially when there is a choice, as in the case of the Vollards, because more of our clients prefer signatures than not. I am also (painfully) aware that the bigger and redder (or bluer or greener) the signature, the faster the print will fly off the “shelf”.

With regard to Picasso’s ceramics, apart from the unique pieces, which tend to be signed and quite pricey, the editioned ceramics are all unsigned.

In conclusion, I can’t help but exhort you once again to follow your bliss—buy what you love, and only consider the signature as it relates to the price. Unsigned Picassos will most assuredly appreciate in parallel with signed works, just as they have for decades.

Previous Chapter | Table of Contents | Next Chapter