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.

34 Comments

  1. I totally agree. I keep very good records and if the need ever arises, I can supply anyone who wishes with the date it was created but I don’t put it on the piece for the very reason you are describing. It’s like asking a women her age. It shouldn’t matter.

  2. I date all of my one-of-a-kind artwork (though not the production pieces). It isn’t on the sales card, or obvious to the casual looker, but it is etched into the metal frame (I’m a glass artist) on the side of my panels. And I have never had anyone ask or question it – though in all fairness I doubt if any of my buyers even notice it.
    One other factor to note is the pricing of ALL my artwork regardless of creation date is consistent with my current practices. I once had a big, beautiful, complicated piece that won a few awards but didn’t find a home for almost 10 years. When it sold to just the right collector, the value had more than doubled from when it was created.

    1. Your work is gorgeous, and when it was created wouldn’t matter one bit to me, either. I date my work on the back, and it has helped me many times to have that reminder there. Especially since some of my tiny pieces are numerous and not all titled individually. I no longer put it on the front, (and never had a habit of it anyway). I’ve never had a buyer care when it was made, and sometimes it DID take a long time to find just the right home.

      1. I think that’s an excellent idea Cindy. I agree with Jason and the comments here that it shouldn’t matter, but it does, to the buyer. Putting the date on the back would solve both problems, buyer hesitancy and creation date.

  3. Dating art work may seem advantageous to Museum Directors who like to chronicle various artist’s lives. The convention of dating work does very little for the artist. It is my practice, to place a date on the stretcher bar in what appears to be random numbers. My only reason to do that is a reminder to myself of when I might apply varnish to the completed piece. I am also fastidious in keeping records of all my work on my computer with backup records too.

  4. I agree with no dates. I used to put it on there. But twice now at an art walk in my studio I e sold two older pieces. High end. Had no price or year on them. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. I agree with not placing a date on an item but I do feel that an artist should keep a log or register of the work and when they created it. If there is a need to place the artist’s work into a sequence at some point it can be available. We also have the opportunity of photographing the work so it can be identified easily in the future for publications or retrospectives. Art often is used by designers doing interiors of buildings or homes, they may look at a date and question their choices if they are trying to do a period setting. They may not feel confident in the work but look at the date to see if it fits into their scheme. A museum has folks who understand dating and the progression and look at the date rather than the content of an artist, others may not.
    I am a visual artist, photographer and arts administrator

  6. I no longer date my art. I do like the idea of placing a form of the date on the back of the frame. I inventory my art pieces as well.

  7. As an artist, I agree with no dates on the art piece, but keeping good records with the date is important, so that it can be looked up if needed.
    I used to date my photography on the mat and if a piece didn’t sell right away it became ‘old’ in the buyers eyes and exactly as Jason said the buyer questions what is wrong with it. I have had this happen several time at the beginning of my career and immediately stopped the practice on the piece itself but with Artsala I am able to keep precise records.

  8. You are totally correct on this one Jason. In my 39 years as an art dealer, I have come across multiple instances when the sale of a work of art fell through because the piece was dated. In each instance the customer was concerned that the piece was less desirable because it was dated some time ago. It is difficult for the gallery to explain why it has remained unsold up to the present date. In many instances customers will ask me when a work they are looking at was painted. The public tends to want an artist’s most recent work, for they believe that maturity brings perfection. I don’t like it when my artists date their work, and prefer that they use a code on the back which indicates the timeframe in which it was painted. This makes it all the more important for the artist to catalog their work and maintain a clear record of their work history.

  9. I have sold many pieces and the date didn’t seem to be an issue. However, I do wonder if what you say is true and my work that sits in the gallery may be at a disadvantage because of the date. I appreciate your insight and will stop putting the date on the front of my work. I do wonder should I continue signing the back of my work with the date? I have always done both. Thank you, Penny Winn

  10. I wholeheartedly agree with you Jason. I have often had prize winning paintings that bounced around for years before the “right” collector came along that recognized its merit. A date may or may not have had a bearing on the purchase, but it might have aroused a question in the buyers mind.

  11. Jason, this makes so much sense.
    I’ve always thought so, for exactly the same reasons you are giving here. Though a bit ashamed, I must admit subconsciously at times it crosses even my mind when I see an older date.
    Being advised by some instructors and professionals in the past I’ve been putting the date on the back of my paintings. But always reluctantly and wondering ‘why’. I keep my own personal records should a need arises to know the date.
    Without going in any further detail here, I made an executive decision 😁 ‘no more dates on the back of a paintings’!
    You explained your point so well but I would like to hear more from the other side. What’s their reasoning for a ‘must be there’ date on the back?
    Thanks!

  12. I agree with other artists that dating for sales purposes is counterproductive. It is not always the newest pieces that sell first during a show but the idea that something very special may not sell for a long time is a difficult concept for most buyers.”Why do I love something that has not sold for years?”

  13. After reading all of the responses and arguments for and against dating art work, I might as well jump in. Art work serves purposes that go beyond the monetary gain and that go beyond the life of the artist. For the sake of posterity and the history of the artist’s life, whether just for the family or for the greater public, art work should have a date somewhere on it that will remain there into the future. With regard to people not purchasing art work because it is an older piece that has failed to sell for a decade, for whatever reason(s), I would suggest that a person who does not purchase a work of art because of the length of time it has been for sale probably isn’t the sort of art purchaser a serious artist ought to be that concerned about. Please, no offense to those who think otherwise…but please date your work somewhere on the piece, even it is on the back. A future generation will be grateful.

  14. The only time it seems a date was important was in shows where the stipulation is to enter work done within the previous 2 years. This always seemed arbitrary to me and unnecessary. The watercolor society I belong to does this. And they will not accept your art into a show if it had been accepted into a previous show. (even if it did not receive a prize). The latter reason I guess I can somewhat understand but the former reason makes no sense to me. If the theme of a show or the desires of the artist indicate a fit with an older painting then why can’t it be entered? I will admit that I have foregone entering a show because the piece I wanted to enter was 6 months out on the 2 year deadline imposed. It isn’t that I was not making new work but that it wasn’t ready in my mind for a show. I never date my paintings until it seems that some will never reach a new home or be shown again. Then I date it if I am keeping it for myself just as a reminder.

  15. If you are entering a piece of art in an art show they often say it must be produced during the past so many years even though it has never been shown in that venue. I stopped putting an obvious date on my pieces because of that. I don’t see why a good piece not produced in that particular number of years cannot be entered and judged.

  16. All of my paper pieces are dated & signed on the back . I only sign on the front & the same signature. My paper pieces are framed .. so until it is taken out of frame you can’t see the date.

  17. It’s not just from a sales viewpoint that I don’t put dates on my work, it’s also from an exhibiting perspective . I’m a 79 year old sculptor and printmaker and have been showing for about 50 years. I generally work in series and sometimes slowly. It can take a few years to develop an idea both technically and artistically. Though my work has changed over the years, the work I did 5 or 10 or more years ago is still good. For posterity, I have a very good database with all the information.
    I very much resent shows that only want work done in the last 2 years. It’s artificial and it runs counter to how many artists work.
    I recently had an exhibition of the work I did on Homelessness in the 1980’s – still relevant and still good work.

  18. Personally, I do not put a date on back. Why? Well sometimes I just forget. But really. I feel like it takes its freedom of why it’s up in display not the how long ago was it painted. If that makes since. If they want to find out ask the painter about the date. If its a problem. I Love your answers to is something wrong with it? I see nothing wrong with not having the date.

  19. I had dated pieces in the past, but agree that it puts a rather arbitrary negative for some potential purchasers. As long as I keep good records of all my paintings, I can tell a buyer of its age, if asked…which I have never been.

  20. I Have Had ‘Unfinished’ Paintings Hanging Around for Sometimes Years.. and Then You Realize What Would Make It Complete…
    Perhaps Date of Sale Would be More Appropriate…

  21. I agree and have sold older works as new because they are in the ongoing series. But I do often get requests for dates from galleries I am approaching to show work with.

  22. How do you feel about photographs? I put the year next to my signature so people will know when the photo was made. That’s not necessarily when the print was made. Some photographers include both dates, like 2015/2018 for a photo made in 2015 and this print made in 2018. I am a documentary photographer and it is often important or of significant interest to know when a photo was made.

  23. I do not date my art, but I date the month/year it was printed at the bottom left of the print, under the mat. My website notes the month/year that the work was originally produced. I do not see a downside to dating work.

  24. I think it is important to put the copyright sign and the date, i.e, © 2021, beneath the signature to prevent it from being copied.

  25. Our Watercolor Society states paintings must be done within 2 years for our exhibits at the Museum.. This leaves a lot of unsold paintings, so I had an exhibit called “Something Old, Something New,: one old, one new. . And as Challenge Chairman, with a Challenge every 2 months, Every Jan. I have “Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sows Ear” and I find different ways of changing old paintings to be able to be shown within the 2 years period.
    . Our Co-op insists that the date must be on the back, if it is not on the front. .Even though many of our artists are always in Splash and win all kinds of Nationally known awards, and sell a lot, they always are in these exhibits.

  26. I ask myself a question: would I rather have an undated Picasso or dated? I’m not sure. Is a dated work by an old or contemporary master bring more value? Is a Gaugan painted in say 1901 better with the date on it?
    I’ll be looking further into this interesting question of to date or not to date.
    Did Jackson Pollack date his paintings?

  27. I stopped dating my work very early on as some pieces took longer to sell. Unfortunately this was pre pc’s and I have not got everything in one place as now. I did start a catalogue system.
    Recently I’ve had a couple of people who have inherited paintings of mine and wanted to know more about them. They are undated on the front. I can remember roughly and tell them about the paintings but can only give a rough date. That’s the only drawback I’ve ever found. I go by how my signature has changed over the years. I wasn’t painting with museums in mind.

  28. One important thing I learned from all your comments is to catalogue my work with the date if I take it seriously. I have been somewhat lax in doing that.

  29. Good advice, and I am going to go back and wipe out the dates on my website.

    I’d forgotten.

    When we used to hold Open Studios, sometimes a painting would sit quietly as everybody walked by, one, two, three years in a row.
    And the fourth year two people would be fighting over it.Thank you.

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