Introduction: Okay, so I've heard back from three individuals: a senior museum curator (well known, with many fine books to his credit); a very distinguished gallery owner (photography art dealer) with four decades in the business and an impressive list of credentials and lifetime accomplishments; and a serious photography collector who invests substantially in fine art photographs and occasionally advises galleries and museums on emerging trends. Since two of the three prefer to remain anonymous, I'll present them all that way. You'll have to take my word for it that they are among the top people in the field, but they are.
Note however that these individuals do not speak monolithically for their entire professions or categories; they're individuals, and speak for themselves, and this short post should be considered a sampling of opinion rather than a survey of opinion. Note also that our dealer tends to concentrate a bit more than the other two on the work of living artists who are still working and creating new work (that is my notion, and I'll let you know if any of the three wish to contradict that).
Here are their answers to my short questionnaire.
Mike Johnston: Do museums generally prefer signed prints over unsigned ones?
Museum curator: Yes, certainly, but the actual history of the makers and objects always needs to be taken into account. A signature is a clear indication of both authorship and of quality (that is, a fine print rather than a work print, press print, etc.), so it's obviously necessary to have a signature in all cases in which one is to be expected. Historically, of course, we know that there are many bodies of work that were routinely not signed—in the 20th century, important figures like Eugene Atget basically never signed his prints and Stieglitz did so rather rarely. In those cases, we go by other criteria to be assured that the authorship and originality of the print are what we want. With 19th century work, a handful of artists either signed their prints or affixed facsimile signature ink-stamps...but many more did not. With contemporary work, it is natural for collectors to expect that all works would be signed—there is, after all, very little good reason for not doing so.
Collector/investor: Marginally, but for vintage prints it would be rare. Instead, verso stamps are common* and would be fine for contemporary prints as well.
Photography art dealer: Yes, collectors want signed photographic prints. The only exception would be estate prints with some form of documentation from the estate representative, with documentation.
MJ: Is there a generally accepted preference for prints signed on the front or the back?
Museum curator: There is no strong preference here from collectors—it's more the preference of the artist. My personal preference is for signatures on the back, leaving the front "clean."
Collector/investor: Absolutely, back.
Photography dealer: Personally, I prefer to see prints signed on both the front and back. Do not know how others dealers feel about this issue.
MJ: If there is a recto signature, should it remain displayed when the print is framed?
Museum curator: My preference is no; this strikes me all too often as a kind of affectation, adding little or nothing to our appreciation of the image itself.
Collector/investor: Hell no.
Photography dealer: It would be optimal if the signature is visible on the recto when matted, but [it is] not always possible.
MJ: Does the presence of a signature make any difference to the value of a piece, or is that too dependent on related issues and specific cases to make a general statement about?
Museum curator: See my answer to [the first question] above. In the cases in which we would expect a signature as a sign of authenticity and print quality, the lack of a signature would pretty consistently have some impact on the value/desirability of the work. In the cases in which a signature isn't expected in the first place, it would obviously make no difference.
Collector/investor: Very rarely.
Photography dealer: The photographer's signature is always important. Hard to offer a first class vintage photograph to a serious collector without a signature or substantial attribution.
If I receive any more answers to my queries I'll add them to this post and alert you to the edit.
My thanks to all concerned!
*In a follow-up email, our collector/investor added the following: "[Where stamps are concerned] a lot depends on the facts and circumstances. I suppose we can also add blind stamps to the list, although that is hardly common anymore. I think a rubber stamp is more common and more archival. But to address one example of variability, for iconic photojournalistic images it is more desirable to have all sorts of press information stamped and pasted to the back than it is to have modern print with a big signature.
"I suppose that for modern prints, if [the print] has any value whatsoever—which, let's face it, is a one in a billion proposition—it is usually clear what a finished print is and what it isn't.
"Another issue is editions, a modern phenomenon. That is usually in light pencil on recto."
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Featured Comments from:
Jim Hughes: "Regarding the signing of prints: I have a large 'Tomoko in Her Bath' print that Gene Smith gave me as a birthday present (long story—he wanted to give me a watch, but Evelyn convinced him I'd rather have the actual and spectacular, if a bit dinged, print which I'd reproduced in the 1974 Minamata essay in Camera 35). He inscribed the print, almost invisibly, in a dark area in the lower left with a black ball-point pen, probably a cheap Bic. Lee Witkin, who matted and framed it for us (reluctantly, it seemed, since he'd always had a tough time getting prints from Gene to sell in the gallery), had taken to calling this, Gene's final signing practice, 'Signed in the image with Stylus.'
"Subsequently, this print hung in my office on a wall that backed my computer desk; the searing image of suffering and love is the one I looked at every day as I sat down to write another chapter for my biography of Smith, a process that took many years.
"Witkin's book The Photograph Collector's Guide, done with Barbara London, is an excellent source by the way. It includes examples of many photographers' signatures. A couple years back, ICP attributed on its blog a note to Helen Gee at Limelight Gallery in the 1950s as having been written by Gene Smith when, in fact, it had been written by Minor White. When I saw it online, I suspected the language did not sound like Gene's and checked the Witkin book for other possibilities. White's reproduced signature was clearly an exact match while Smith's, of course, was nothing like the signature at the bottom of this note. So rather than admitting the mistake, ICP just removed the document from the blog without a word of explanation."