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How To Safely Navigate The Art Market: A Painting’s Title

March 1, 2019

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In November, I discussed Title as it relates to legal ownership. Now I will delve into the name of a work or its Title.

While artists are often very creative, some are not always fastidious about creating interesting and unique titles for their works. Of course, there are many who do. If there is paperwork from the artist with the information, and it can be linked to a specific work, or it was exhibited in a major show (Salon, Royal Academy, National Academy, etc.) and illustrated in the accompanying catalog, then you stand a good chance of learning what it is. However, original paperwork from an artist rarely exists, and only a handful of any artist’s works are exhibited and then illustrated. When this is the case, determining the original title can be very difficult. I can tell you that when it comes to our contemporary artists, we are insistent that they not only give us a title (which is recorded in our inventory files), but they also write it on the back of the painting – and for some artists, we even go as far as asking for a narrative (the story behind the piece). In addition, we suggest that our artists keep detailed records (with images) of all the works they create.

Artists typically sell their works through a dealer who, at times, may have to title or even re-title works. You may ask: why would a dealer do that? Well, some artists simply do not title a work, or deliver them with generic names – Floral, Landscape, Sunrise, Sunset, Children on a Beach, etc. Think of how many works by Josef Albers carry the title Homage to the Square (he started the series in 1950 and continued with it for the next 25 years, so there are hundreds of them). While some have a further description like Homage to the Square: Gobelin or Homage to the Square: Stage Light, there are plenty that do not. And how many paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat are Untitled? Many. In fact, of his top 20 paintings at auction, seven were Untitled, including his most expensive work. These titles not only become repetitive but make it very difficult to differentiate and track the history of each work. In order to distinguish one from another, dealers may create more descriptive/unique titles. Hopefully, the dealer also gives each work an inventory number (which they put on the back) and keeps detailed records for future reference.

When I began researching the works of Julien Dupré for the catalogue raisonné, I was fortunate enough to gain access to one of his original dealer’s records (M. Knoedler). While searching their archives, two artist’s entries caught my attention – de Longpre (a French artist who moved to the US and today is remembered as an American still life painter) and Charles Theodore Frere (the French Orientalist artist). What I found most interesting was that they not only appeared in large groups, but most were entered with the same generic title – Bouquets for de Longpre and Egyptiens for Frere. For instance, on February 12, 1879, they listed 30 works by de Longpre with the title Bouquets, and between 1878 – 1883 some 46 works by Frere were entered with the title Egyptiens. I am sure you can guess that it is nearly impossible to determine which work is which – unless, of course, the original inventory numbers are still on the back. Even then, what good would it do in terms of trying to determine the artist’s original title? They were all listed as Bouquets or Egyptiens. Today, when works by these artists appear on the market, they usually have more interesting and, at times, image specific titles – Still Life with Lilacs, Yellow Poppies, Ruins of Luxor, Sunset Over the Nile, etc.  Over the years, dealers, scholars, and collectors needed ways to identify individual works and created more descriptive titles. Of course, in certain instances, similar or identical titles still do exist since there are only so many unique ways one can describe a painting that depicts a bouquet of yellow roses, but at least they are not all known as Bouquets.

A few years after starting my research on Dupré, I was lucky enough to come across his original account book (yes, he kept a detailed record of each work in a small notebook – a nudge to all you artists out there) and realized that a similar situation existed with his works. For almost a century it was almost impossible to determine what Dupré had originally titled a work. The closest one could get was to the title his dealers used when they entered it into their inventory records, and that was if you could find and access that dealer’s files. Now you might say … wow, since you have his account book, now you can give each work its original title! True, but… Dupré, like many other artists, had a habit of repeating a title or using a very similar title. Trying to determine which work is which can be a daunting, if not impossible, task. For example: in 1904, Dupré sold four works with the title Une Faneuse to one dealer. In 1905 he sold another seven titled Une Faneuse to that same dealer and sold another work titled La Faneuse (a slight variation) at an exhibition. In 1906, Dupré sold five more works titled Une Faneuse — four to the same dealer and one at an exhibition; not to mention that he used the La Faneuse title on a painting. To complicate the matter, Dupré began using some of these same titles in 1879, with the last instance appearing in 1909, and never numbered the actual paintings to match the numbers in his account book (again, for all you artists out there, it is important that you not only create a numbering system for your works but that you place that number on the back of each piece). As you can see, trying to determine which Faneuse is which may be nearly impossible – but we are working on it.

Your next question may be, what about those works that an artist gave a specific and somewhat unique title to? Even if the original dealer sold it with that title, it does not mean the title remained with the work. The problem is that paintings are bought and sold many times and when they resurface on the market, the original title may have been lost (unless copies of the original documents accompany the work, or it is written on the back). I have seen many instances, while researching the provenance on a specific work, where each time a painting reappeared on the market, it was given a new title … not necessarily because someone deliberately wanted to change it (though that is sometimes the case), but because the original title was unknown to the seller, and they needed to describe or inventory it.

Another title problem exists when works are reproduced in books or as prints. Here, variations of a work’s title abound, especially when they are being translated from a foreign language. The simple reason for this is that translations of specific words can vary. For example, Daniel Ridgway Knight’s L’Appel au passeur has been reproduced with the following titles: The Call to the Ferryman, Hailing the Ferryman, Hailing the Ferry-man, Calling the Ferryman and The Ferryman.

So, what does this all mean? Sometimes you will never be able to determine a work’s original title. Is it important to have the original title? Not always, but sometimes it is. Does the original title help value a work? It can. If the artist kept accurate records, knowing the title can help date a painting, which could add to or detract from its value. In the end, while it is nice to have the original title (though you may be somewhat disappointed by its less than descriptive nature), it is not imperative. What is important, especially regarding value, is that the work is authentic, in nice condition, of superior quality, and from the artist’s best periods.

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