Debate: Should You Include a Date on Your Artwork?

Many of you who have been following me will know that I discourage artists from including dates on their artwork. Recently, I received the following email from the curator of a museum:

 

Dear Jason,
As a Museum Director, I vehemently disagree with not putting the date created on pieces of work in a portfolio. Why do you suggest that? It appears that the artist is hiding something.

Sincerely,
D.R.

 

I responded:

Dear D,

Thank you for the email and the question. I come at the question from a marketing and sales standpoint, and from my perspective on the front lines of helping artists sell their work, I have only seen the dating of work as a negative.

In a nutshell, here is the problem: It is often the case that a particular work of art will enter the art market and not sell immediately. Sometimes the work is shown in the wrong venue, sometimes the market itself is slow (as over the last several years) and sometimes it’s just poor luck. There are a lot of variables that have to align in order to sell a piece of art. Because of the complexity of the market, an artist will frequently have to move a work of art through several galleries before it finds a home. This process can sometimes take months, or even years. It’s not that there is anything wrong with the artwork, it simply takes time to align the art with the right individual who will be willing and able to make the purchase.

If the work of art includes the creation date we risk prejudicing the potential buyer against the work unnecessarily. The potential buyer may find the artwork to be desirable in every way artistically and aesthetically, and I would argue that the age of the artwork shouldn’t make any difference to this buyer. Unfortunately, I have found age can have an impact on some (not all, but some) buyers.

“I like this piece,” they will say, “but it’s dated 2012. It’s been on the market for over five years and no one has bought it? What’s wrong with it?” This seed of doubt can be enough to dissuade some buyers. I am not speaking hypothetically – I have seen this happen on numerous occasions over my 19 years in the art business and my experience has lead me to discourage artists from including the date on their work or in their portfolios for this reason. I simply don’t see a compelling reason on the other side of the argument that outweighs this potential risk for an artist who is trying to sell their work in the current art market.

I would argue that it’s not that we’re trying to hide something from potential buyers, but rather that we simply don’t emphasize the age of the work by including the date. If there is no date on the work, in the vast majority of cases, the issue never arises.

I am an impassioned advocate of artists being organized and carefully cataloging all of their work. I encourage artists to make sure that each work of art includes an inventory number which could then be cross-referenced to the artist’s inventory if and when the question of creation date arises in the future.

I understand that from a curatorial standpoint it would be helpful to have easy access to creation date, but the vast majority of artists working today are more concerned with making a living and selling their work. From that perspective, I would argue that, on balance, it is better to avoid overtly dating the work.

I would welcome your perspective and any counter arguments. My position certainly isn’t intractable, I simply want to help artists make informed decisions as they approach the market.

 

What do you think? Do you include a date on your work? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

54 Comments

  1. I don’t include a date for the reasons you mention. My inventory numbering system includes the date. 20001 for the first of 2020, it was 19001 for 2019, etc. Left me room to do 999 paintings for the year. Not that I need it. I usually date a card I sketch. My signature on card sketches is just Jo ’20 as they don’t get an inventory number, just filed in the year made.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

    I totally agree. I never date my work but I do keep very good records on each piece including when it was created and I have that information if anyone would ever need it.

  3. The last date I put on one of my paintings was 1991. No one has asked in the last 29 years. But, I haven’t had the good fortune of having a museum director curate one of my paintings either.

    1. I agree with Jason, however almost all juried art shows have some sort of age limit on entries. The longest I’ve seen is five years.I have never asked venues why, but assumed that like Jason said, buyers are suspicious of “older” works.

      I do sign and date my work – not obviously – but also put a card on the back with a description of the work, and a very short bio/statement.

  4. I agree with curator. Put the date on the back of the work, under the framing where buyers who are just silly and lack confidence can’t see it. And if you become famous, people will by vying for those “older” works!

    1. I stopped dating my work when I got ready to enter some of my ‘new’ work in an exhibit and realized some of it fell into the previous year and would be disqualified. Seemed unfair since I had never shown them before. I understood the rule–they were trying to prevent artists from entering old shopworn pieces and art that might have been shown all over town for years. That didn’t fit my case, so I stopped dating most of mine. Also, the dates on illustrations can be problematic, especially if you’re using them as portfolio pieces. I do sometimes date things: hobby pieces, or by request.

  5. Before framing, I always write the date on the BACK of my artwork , along with my signature &title. It is part of my history, my trajectory as an artist… It’s odd how people treat art like it has an expiration date, when in fact just the opposite is true—-good art is timeless. However, I never clutter the front side of an artwork with extraneous information such as a date or a title; signature is enough.

    1. Hi,
      In my case, as I have travelled and lived in different parts of the world, my paintings have been hugely impacted by the cultures that surrounded me at the time. I work in series, which have often heavily reflected my experience and environment during their period of creation. Their dates therefore are important as they represent not only the point in time of which I was but also my development throughout the years as an artist.

      I have found people to be rather interested in the history of my series and what moved me to create them at the time. The same goes for Picasso’s cubism phase, his blue period and his pink period for example. These are inextricably linked to who he was physically, mentally and spiritually during these periods.

      As Kandinsky explained, an artist’s work is often a reflection of his time and this should be embraced, not hidden away.

      This is just a thought 🙂

      1. Agreed Jane R.

        That was my immediate thought!
        I’m a big fan of art, Im not a collector per say. If the art speaks. I listen.
        The value initially, is subjective from my standpoint. I am curious by DNA so any or all history behind artist and art itself is important to me however, certainly not a deal breaker.

  6. To me it’s about authenticity. My paintings are what they are. It’s like price, that is my price and if you want it please. I would rather be up front and be trusted. I can’t believe that the question of when it was painted would not come up before the sale. It’s also important for copyright purposes.

    But then I am also a poet so authenticity is dear to me.

  7. I always date my work, having been taught in art school that it is important in tracking the artist’s development over time. I still believe this.

    Many competitions and grants will call for work that has been completed within the past xyz years. My understanding is that this primarily shows jurors that the artist is still currently producing in the studio. That seems like a valid reason to stipulate those submission requirements, especially for museum shows and grants.

    I have seen and spoken to those who don’t date their work for precisely that reason. They then submit older work for the same shows for which artist who date their work may be ineligible to apply, possibly not having current work that fits the thematic requirements for a show. Despite knowing how tough getting your work recognize can be, I still think this is a bit fraudulent and wrong.

  8. I date work in Roman numerals discreetly on the back.
    I have been fortunate enough to have been tapped for solo museum shows and when I first came under the wing of the curator of our regional museum, she suggested dating this way.

  9. I used to date mine as advised in college classes, but not anymore, as so many shows I’m in want the work to be in the last year, but has a theme that I may have in my inventory for several years back. They are usually accepted into shows…due to theme. The reply by Madalin blue, I like,,,so may start doing that..put info on back of art which is usually covered by protective paper. I also like Robin Baratta’s use of Roman numerals on the back.

      1. I read that da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa off and on for decades (and probably would have modified it some more had he not died). The fact that a painting was started several years ago should not make it ineligible for a show, as it is the end result that’s important, not how long it took to reach that end.

        So if you made any “improvements” to the original painting, even if only a few brushstrokes, then the “new” painting should be eligible for the show.

        Competitions are judged via digital submittals these days, so a date on the back isn’t visible unless the winning paintings are delivered for a show, and it’s unlikely that anyone would check at that point. However, if an artist did cheat on the rules and was found out, that would be a black mark on the artist’s reputation for future shows.

  10. I do not date either for all the reasons you mentioned but they are in my inventory for that year. Some shows demand that the work be done in the last few years as if anything done before that is not worthy of being juried…as if you have suddenly changed that much or improved. I had a piece that was about two months before the cutoff date for a show. I knew that if I sent the photo of it when I took it, that the meta data would show the date. It was a good piece and I felt like it was worth entering. I made a copy of the photo and made any corrections I needed and resized and saved with a title. No meta data went with the saved file. Dates should not make the piece unworthy.

    1. There’s an easy solution to the metadata issue: If you still have the painting in your possession, simply take a new photo – voila! the shooting date and metadata will be current.

  11. I used to put the date on the back of my artwork, but have stopped doing so following your advice. I recently had a new customer who wanted to buy a painting I made in 2016. When I had the piece on the table to wrap, he noticed the date on the back and did comment. I heard a little surprise and hesitation in his voice but answered him with confidence as if it was the most natural thing in the world that someone might buy a painting that was created four years ago. He went ahead with the purchase and came back a couple of weeks later to buy another painting from 2015. I think he is now comfortable with the idea that he likes the work I was doing in this period.

  12. Just curious about why people think art that was created a while ago is now not worth buying? Would they turn their noses up at something obviously old, like, for instance something painted by Van Gogh, or maybe Cézanne, or a Dutch Master? Seriously. Pop culture has ruined us as a society.

  13. For many years I had an agent who took care of selling my work, and he held the opinion of not dating paintings for the very reasons you mention. As a result I refrained from including the date for the first
    20 years or so of my art career. However, by the time I parted ways with my agent things were not quite
    so simple because my work had improved dramatically. At this point the lack of a date became a detriment whenever earlier work surfaced online or at a gallery etc. because anyone not familiar with my history would often assume the level of the early work as being my current level. This became more pronounced as time went on and I eventually began including the date. In 2000 I began putting the date in Roman numerals. This satisfies the interest of museums etc., and if for some reason a purchasing client really needs to know the date it can be deciphered.

    **My AFC site listed below currently has limited examples. A google image search for Michael Dumas artist will yield a much wider variety of work.

  14. Once again Jason…You are “spot on”. While it seems logical to date a work of art, it can have a profound impact upon the realization of a sale. My advice to artists is to catalog your work with a code for future reference, and inform your gallery of your dating system. Generally the public wants to look at what is fresh and new by the artist, and can at times be wary of a piece art which is older, no matter how wonderful it may be.

  15. I have masters in art history. I love dates! But I sympathize with you and those who do not date. I will adopt dating on the back of my in the future.
    This seems to me a golden opportunity to educate the public. The work has intrinsic value. That is why it is being purchased.
    Thanks for the discussion, Jason.

  16. I can see both sides of this issue. But the issue exists in two universes which I’m finding are separate and distinct.
    Museum (historical arc) and Market (acquisition).
    Quick Story-1 A friend of mine and I were in the MET in NYC awhile ago. He had worked at the Pollock-Krasner Institute which was their studio and residence. So we were in front of one of Pollock’s paintings. He said the date was wrong and gave reasons which had to do with a particular black paint that he used only briefly and what paint was on top of that paint in the studio barn. Pollock’s paintings as I recall were not dated.
    From a curatorial point of view that is a nightmare.
    Quick Story-2. I revise and edit my work that is still with me in my inventory. Sometimes the revisions are radical. What do you do with the date and who cares from a marketing point of view. Like most artists, I have quite a bit of work from an earlier life. Some of those pieces are formative, most are mildly curious.
    If Jason doesn’t care for dates because of the potential for difficulty, I’ll give him undated work. My one inventory listing solves the opus issue.
    If perchance a museum wants my work and they need a date, they get a date.
    Most artist estates are nightmares anyway, which is the other place provenance and order seems to crop up but the artist need not worry about that.

    1. As long as a work is still I’m my possession revision is likely lol.
      I just add the new date to the old one so if a painting was born in 2017, and revised in 2020 it would say
      MMXVII/MMXX

  17. During my first year of painting, I did include the year under my signature. Then my signature changed and I dropped the date. Like Jo Castillo, I include the date in the inventory number to keep track of my work. For the Fine Art category in 2019 the inventory number is FA19001, FA19002 and so on.

    Since I also make wearable art in the form of handbags, the inventory number is HH19001, for hand held and CB19001, for cross body bags, but I don’t include this number on the art itself.

    1. Forgot to mention that I take photos of the work and include the photos with the corresponding inventory numbers for my records.

      1. I think that putting a date on a work of art some times becomes a way to not be able to show your work in a competition. Because they were painted over 2 years ago. even if they have never been seen. I have a storage unit full of work that was painted a while back. They are still great paintings but not correct for an art competition because it is 2 years or more old. Now with digital abilities ( if you take a picture of a painting) they can be checked for their time frame.. some times I paint in a series of similar style colors forms etc… And sometimes that interest in my painting in a series takes a long time. sometimes I need a break from painting the the same style or subject.
        As for some artist hiding something from the gallery owner is ridiculous. I painted 18 compositions of fruits and vegetables over a period of time. They were very nicely done. Are they not as impressive today as they where years ago? They are a collection. Should any of them be disqualified for sale or a competition ?

        1. The best thing we artists could do would be to educate the folks in charge of shows and competitions. Help them realize that by requiring only recent work they are hurting themselves, because otherwise excellent work may be eliminated simply because of a date on the calendar – and that has nothing to do with the art’s quality.

          An artist may have an older work that is actually better than what they did this year, or more appropriate for the theme of the show. By allowing art of any date, they open up the show to a wider range of excellent work.

  18. I date my pieces on the back, include a numerical identification, the name of the work, my name and where it was painted. I believe dating is dated as far as the general public is concerned. Older furniture, family treasures and the like are being discarded in favour of new, streamlined and modern. That may change but not in time for the artist now who is looking to make a living.

  19. I don’t get it. I have been a full time artist for 2 years and so my experience is slim. So I looked up some of my favorite artists and not one of them date their work. Does the rule “must have a date” only apply to less known artists, because it does not seem to apply to well known artists, at least from what I can tell. Seriously, what is the thinking of galleries who insist on a date and an art competition that won’t allow work older than 2 years old?

  20. In my experience as an art collector, I prefer to buy art with a date on it, generally the more info a piece of art has, a title, date, signature, COA, receipt etc… the easier it will be to resell, making it a better investment. And also, I like to own art from different periods of the artists whose work I collect, a date makes that relatively easy.

    As an artist, I’ve never had a piece not sell because of the date it was painted. I do date mine on the back, so, it’s not “in your face” that a piece might have been done a while ago, but, I also don’t hide a date either. I sell around 80% of my art to collectors (and remember although most collectors won’t directly admit it, they’re also investors looking to make a good investment), around 20% to “decorators”. I cater to the collectors more than the “decorators”.

  21. I have always dated my art-work in two places – on my inventory (with small photos of the work), and on the back of the canvas or board. Normally my framing process will result in these detailed title and date labels, with my signature, to be hidden from view unless the buyer subsequently reframes the art-work.

    I used to date my artwork on the front, with my painted signature but discontinued this practice very quickly when I found I wanted to repaint some scenes. Technically the later paintings were better, but sometimes the initial paintings had better emotional content. And my older paintings sell just as frequently as my new ones.

    Just my thoughts…

  22. I became a gallery artist in 1986, and have been represented by some of the finest galleries from Scottsdale to Santa Monica, San Franciso to N.Y.C. I’ve lost count of how many solo exhibitions I’ve had over the years. Those galleries have sold hundreds of my paintings through the decades. I have found that adding the date of creation on a piece of art does not harm as long as the piece sells quickly (within a year). I agree with Jason that dating a piece of art will only serve to hinder the sale of the work after a year or so, even if the piece is great. The competition is stiff enough out there for a fine artist who wants to support themselves exclusively on the sale of their art. Every advantage is helpful.

  23. I used to date my work until I saw Jason’s wisdom in not dating work. But I do have records of my work and the inventory number starts with the last two digits of the year. I suspect if someone sat down and looked at the numbers they could figure out the dates. I like thinking that an older work could be brand new in the eyes of a collector. A date adds an unnecessary distraction that could kill a sale.

  24. IMO, the artists who are changing or eliminating dates on work in order to get into a show that has a date restriction are being dishonest and cheating any potential buyers. If you don’t like the rules, don’t enter the show.

  25. I totally agree NOT to put the date on any art work, for the same reasons expressed: “buys” (NOT yet “Collectors”) have their daily lives focused on “out of date”, “age”, “not wanted”>thus their question of “what’s wrong with it?” if you still own it, years after the date? They do this because they cannot trust their own heart!

    At present I have over 300 originals! Some have never seen a frame, nor shown in any show or gallery. If they had been dated…well, need I say more?

    When I graduated from Art Center College of Design in L.A., one of my instructors showed me how they kept track of his paintings…which I do to this day. With computers, it is 100 times easier, but basically the same method. In those days, each painting was numbered, saved on a 4×6 index card, which had it’s number, title and size across the top. Each time you showed it, you listed the gallery or art show with a date. It’s image (as a slide) was on the backside of that index card. When it sold you retired it to another “box”, with whomever purchased that painting.

    Today, with computers, even easier~!

    I keep a hard copy, in case the hd gets damaged. Also, shot each painting with slide film, and have folders of over 1900 paintings (plein air, figurative, & still life), so should the computer not be handy, or has crashed, I still have all my history!

  26. This topic has stayed in my thoughts longer than it should. But considering the strong feelings some have for “should I date or not date” a piece of artwork, I feel a need to add two more cents worth to this topic.

    I have direct tv and some of my favorite shows are set to record only “first runs” yet I keep finding some shows I’ve seen before appear in the queue as first runs. The reason is that in order for a show to stay relevant, the producers take old segments of a program and couple them with other old segments of other programs and now they have an entirely new “first run” production with a current date.

    The same can be said for old songs. Some artists that may not be producing new music will take a sampling of an older musical score and insert it into other pieces of music and BAM they have an entirely new piece of music that is recorded, produced, and released with a current date.

    I, myself, give new life to old paintings by reinventing their purpose. Where at one time, in my earlier years they might have been good for simply hanging on a wall, I might turn them into parts of a tapestry or a ceiling mural. Now the old piece of work has been reborn into a new life with a new date of birth.

    Should I date the piece as it was originally painted or should I date it to reflect its new form of completion? The same could be said for older paintings. Paint over them, change the original color of the sky or paint over the facade of a building, give your portraits new hair color and background. It’s your work. Stay relevant any way you can.

  27. As an artist and gallery owner I completely agree and for all the reasons you mentioned.
    I do put my name and date on the back stretcher bars (never on the canvas). For provenance I think the artwork does need that documentation. Just not on the front of the painting.

  28. I create paintings in egg tempera and drawings in silverpoint, two labor-intensive media. Because of the nature of these materials, I cannot produce more than 4 to 6 new pieces per year even while faithfully working 30 hours per week in the studio. This pretty much precludes me from gallery representation so I work to sell on my own. When I mount a show, the pieces often span 5 years or more. I feel that including dates on the paintings would yield the pejorative reaction you described in your original post. Thanks for addressing this issue.

  29. Personally, I like information. My inventory code includes materials, my initials, space for 1000 paintings the number of the piece produced in the year it was produced and if it is a card or a drawing I include that too. For example: MXPKB003219 or GTKB000518D or WIKB001515C. Mixed media on paper, 32nd work for the year 2019 or graphite on Terraskin, 5th work in 2018 drawing, or watercolour and ink 15th work in the year 2015 greeting card. I keep a hard copy with the list of code and space for title, client etc. All of this information is stored in Artwork Archive, a bargain for the price.

  30. For what it is worth, most of my completed art is signed and dated in two or three small, more or less hidden places within the image. Just because I can. It’s part of the style of my completed works, not necessarily a sales tool. However, if I’ve framed the work, the history and description of the piece with date and other details is attached on the back, which is a sales tool.
    If someone wants one of my works they purchase it because they like it. Because it inspires them, or it reminds them of something, or it is pleasing to look at, or it fits and completes the decor of where they want to put it….whatever. They purchase it because of what it is, not when it was created.

  31. I agree with Jason, I would never date a painting on the front. I see the point many others make, however I think that in the off chance that after my demise my paintings become famous and collectible, I will leave a trail through my inventory. In that respect, I have decided to use some of the inventory ideas that others have made here. Right now, I just am happy to sell a painting or two and do not want to present my work as being “old” and outdated even if I did paint it a few years ago.

  32. Totally agree with you Jason. Plus if I have a piece that doesn’t sell quickly, I might make adjustments to it , which then negates the date of completion.

  33. Very interesting reading, thanks to all. I date my work but have often thought that I shouldn’t. Luckily I sell most of what I produce within a few months so its not really been an issue but this Covid slowdown has made me rethink many of my daily practices. I will start keeping a more detailed inventory of my work and perhaps develop a code for dating on the back, quit dating the front and consider some of the great ideas I have read here. Thank You

  34. I use a code for dating my pieces. I understand the argument, but what do you say to a patron who asks when the work was created—especially if they become somewhat adamant about knowing?

  35. What an interesting debate. I never showed or sold my work so whether or not I should put a date never occurred to me. However, I inherited some art and it was most helpful to have a date when I tried to research the artists to learn more about them.

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