Collection marks, whether of an individual collector or an organization such as a museum, library, or those tasked with the dispersal an artist’s estate, show ownership. A drawing’s provenance, or ownership history, is traced through these marks. Frits Lugt in 1921 published the standard reference Les marques de collections de dessins et d’estampes (a supplement was published in 1956, and an expanded online version is due in 2010). The marks that he cataloged are arranged alphabetically (most marks involve initials); by symbol type, for example geometric figures; animals; those that are difficult to understand; idiosyncratic mounts and mats; and by examples of handwriting with emphasis on inventory systems. Entries for important collectors and their marks are fairly detailed, listing the choicest prints and drawings and sale dates (Lugt’s other great contribution to art history was his Répertoire des Catalogues de Ventes Publiques). Lugt assigned a number to each mark, and catalog or auction entries on drawings with a collector’s mark, will give the collector’s name and a Lugt number, say Pierre-Jean Mariette (Lugt 1852 or more simply L. 1852) and will note in what color ink the mark is stamped and where the mark is located.
I made the holiday card above in about 2000 with the assistance of clever friends who were able to scan the collection marks I’d chosen from Lugt and I then arranged the letters to read “Season’s Greetings.” I remember being very pleased with myself (seems pitiable now) going to the photocopy shop and printing from a disk rather than with bits of paper pasted down with a glue stick and whiteout covered seams. I don’t have a copy of Lugt with me, but the marks I recognize as being by important collectors are the apostrophe, made with a star, of Nicholas Lanier (1588 – 1666) ; and the palette with the letter “R” which is of the painter Jonathan Richardson Senior (1665 – 1745). Both of these collectors are associated with more than one mark.
Marks appear both on the recto and verso, or front and back, of drawing sheets. Marks are the least disfiguring if they are on the back or on the edges away from the drawn images. Some stamps are embossed and are known as “blind stamps” and are more unobtrusive than the more usual inked stamps. Occasionally marks are in the central part of the sheet, within the lines of the drawing, and are applied like the stamps of vengeful bureaucrats. Presumably the owners feared theft and that a stamp in the middle would discourage thieves, not giving them the opportunity of trimming off a mark on the edge. Nowadays most collectors do not mark their drawings because marks are distracting and disfiguring and one can document one’s collection with photographs.
A mark of an important collector adds value to a drawing. Of course, collection marks are easily faked, and have been. The falsifier Hebborn would draw them freehand, but for the unscrupulous dealer, getting an artisan to duplicate a stamp is not difficult–far, far easier than finding someone to counterfeit banknotes, for example. The marks that are most faked are those of the greatest collectors. With ever more precise measuring instruments, and if there were time and interest, marks could be evaluated for authenticity.
26 March 2010 – Lugt is now online and what a wonderful tool. Here is the Lugt start page.