Signed in pencil, signed in the plate, what does all of this mean? The way a print is signed and it’s impact on the value of the art causes a great deal of confusion. You will see prints that are unsigned, signed in the plate, stamped signature, estate signed and signed with a blindstamp. There are no hard and fast rules about how an artist should sign their graphic art. It is more important to know what the normal procedure was for the time period and what the normal practice was for that particular artist.
Centuries ago, most artists never considered signing their art. Numbers of pieces are unsigned, but that does not mean that the artist is unknown or that it was not done or approved by him or that it has no value. Rembrandt, considered one of the greatest etchers did not sign a number of his etchings. Most of the modern masters, Picasso, Chagall, Miro, did not sign certain editions. This is when it is important to work with a knowledgeable dealer since unscrupulous people have forged pencil signatures on authentic art in order to command a higher price.
Signed in the plate means that the artist has signed their name in the matrix (wood, metal, stone, etc) so that it is printed within the art. This is the way that an artist would sign their work up until the 19th Century and many of the earlier artists would not have done that much if it had not be decreed by guild law. Generally speaking, because in art there are always exceptions, a plate signed work of art is more desirable than an unsigned piece, but is less desirable than one signed in pencil. Since artist from the 14th to late 19th Century did not sign their art in pencil, the lack of a pencil signature has no impact on the value.
Signed in pencil is usually the type of signature that collectors prefer. It has become a tradition for the artist to sign their name in the lower margin under the image. They may also include the edition number, title and date. We can thank James McNeil Whistler for helping to introduce and promote the hand written signature at the end of the 19th century. The hand signed signature signified the integrity of the print, that it is original and distinctive from a reproduction. Whistler charged twice as much for his hand signed pieces than he did his other pieces from the same edition, even though there was no difference in the quality of the art. Seymour Haden would sign his name to any of his earlier unsigned etchings for a guinea. Picasso sold 15000 signatures for the Vollard Suite.
Unfortunately, the hand signed signature no longer has this same meaning since many artists sign and number their offset lithographic or giclee reproductive prints. Nor is this a new phenomenon, Kathe Kollwitz signed photolithographic reproductions of one of her aquatint series. Still, the implied message has remained and pieces that are hand signed generally are more valuable than ones that are not. What makes all of this very confusing is that it is possible to have a fake signature on an authentic work of art and an authentic signature on a reproductive work of art.
Sometimes, instead of hand signing the art or signing in the plate, an artist will use a stamp of their signature and apply it to the art, usually in the lower margin where you would normally find the hand signature. A stamped signature will sometimes be confused for a hand signed signature. Heirs and estates have been creating posthumous editions or reproductive editions that bears a special signature. They sign the art to give the impression that it would have been authorized by the artist if they had not died. These signatures could be hand signed, stamped signatures or blindstamps by the heirs, museums or any authorized organization. The value of these is usually much lower than lifetime impressions. But of course, there are always exceptions!