The Signature Man
Art Connoisseur

Art / Books / Profile: John Castagno's quest to catalog

Marc Chagall's signature was pretty legible -- except that is, when he signed in Cyrillic. Cy Twombley's scrawled signature looks exactly like Cy Twombley's scrawled art. Old master Lucas Cranach The Edler marked his work with a square monogram featuring his initials, the date and what appears to be a cute little worm. And famed 20h century potter Beatrice Wood? She Hancocked her work with the folksy, postmodern "Bea."

These are some of the many revelations that come from examining the fascinating, highly useful reference books that south Philadelphia, Pa., artist/dealer/researcher John Castagno spent much of the past two decades compiling.

For nine years beginning in 1980, Castagno hand-made exact facsimiles of artists' signatures. He worked 60 hours per week, using little more than a magnifying glass, felt tip pens and 3# x 5" index cards. He took trips to libraries, galleries and museums. He studied auction house catalogs as intently as a rabbi does the Talmud. In 1989, the first of his books came out, and he cut back his pace, but only slightly.

By 1988, Castagno had re-created a grand total of 33,000 signatures by 31,000 different artists. Strange way to spend such a big chunk of time, huh?

"I was totally obsessed," Castagno says. "I'd be invited out to dinner and spend four hours in someone's house – two hours socializing and the other two hours, I would bring my work with me so I would not lose too much time. I would do that at all social occasions."

Castagno's dinner party-mates may have lost out on his company, but art buyers, sellers, dealers and collectors gained a series of vital reference materials. Starting in 1989, and continuing through last year, Castagno and publisher Scarecrow Press have released ix volumes of the signatures, each divided by geography, era and theme. The informative, if long-winded, titles are: "Artists as Illustrators, An International directory with Signatures and Monograms, 1800-Present"; "American Artist, Signatures and Monograms, 1800-1989"; "European Artists, Signatures and Monograms, 1800-1990, Including Selected Artists from Other Parts of the World"' "Old Masters Signatures and Monograms, 1400-Born 1800"; "Artists Monograms and Indiscernible Signatures, and International Directory, 1800-1991"; and the baby of the bunch, last year's "Latin American Artists' Signatures and Monograms."

After years of practice, Castagno can craft any artist's signature in less than a minute. Do any particularly tricky names take longer? "None of them," Castagno says, his down home City of Brotherly Love accent as thick as a good cheese steak. "Once you get a good feel of being able to reproduce, it comes very easy. It's just knowing what to do."

And also, knowing what tools to use. Castagno says he favors felt tip pens with tips ranging in width from 1/32" (see: Morgan Livingston Schambert, American, 1881-1918) to 1/8" (see: Carl Schrag, American, born 1912).

Besides chirographic skills, Castagno has acquired a vast knowledge of his specialized art world expertise. "For the past 150 years artists have been more prone to use a larger, more obvious size signature on oil paintings," he says. "Otherwise, all the centuries had artists who signed the works with legible and illegible script and/or printed signatures and monograms and symbol signatures. It is uncommon for an artist not to vary his or her signature style."

Hence the five different styles employed by Rufino Tamayo, the six by Pablo Picasso, the eight each by Rembrandt and Renior, and most controversially, the nine attributed to fraud-plagued surrealist Salvador Dali. Castagno has added some more esoteric knowledge as he searches for camouflaged names amidst a variety of painterly settings.

"It was not unusual," he says, "for a 19th or 18th century European artist to 'hide' the signature on a rung of a chair in an interior scene, or on the base of a column in a church scene, or on a piece of drift wood in a seascape painting, or on a rock in a landscape painting."

When prodded, Castagno confesses that he isn't aware of any particular group or movement of artists who all signed their works in a certain discernible fashion – what, they don't teach the artists that in manifesto-writing class?

In that big picture sense, it's a bit disappointing to learn that, say, the Dadaists didn't have their own witty, sexual way of signing. Or that the Warhol factory didn’t' have some sort of cattle brand, particularly one with a stenciled, dog-tag feel. (Oddly, the highly domesticated Norman Rockwell used a militaristic faux stencil.)

On the other hand, there are plenty of gems to discover among the thousands of pages of individual signatures catalogued by Castagno. Take Harry Knox Smith, who signed his name backwards, "Xonkhtims." Or John Singer Sargent, who used what look like the cryptic dots and lines of a private Morse code. Then there's the thick, dark calligraphic signature of the late 14th – early 15th century tempura painter Jacabo de Carolis. This signature is taken from the lone recorded example of the artist signing a piece, according to a Castagno footnote in the "Old Masters" volume. If that's really the only time he signed, you've got to hand it to de Carolis – he's used enough ink in this one fat autograph to last a lifetime.

Another signature in the book series that deserves attention highlights a familiar name – John Edward Castagno. It's found on page 123 of the "American Artists" book, and it's no vanity inclusion or mere prank. Castagno was a decorated painter and mixed media sculptor of the 1970s. His Jasper Johns-like de-and reconstructions of the American flag earned him 49 solo and group shows. Forty public institutions hold his works, and his paintings are in the private collections of American Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, two of the lesser but still Chief Executives.

Finally, while the books, themselves, hardly resulted in any financial gain, Castagno's art dealing business has benefited from his obsessive corralling of signatures.

"It's helped me a great deal as a buyer and seller of art," he says, and cites one incredibly lucrative example.

Attending an auction where the art's authenticity wasn't guaranteed, Castagno recognized a legitimate signature on what was assumed to be a bogus Thomas Hart Benton painting. Castagno bought the piece for a scant sum and soon resold it for a –ready? – 120,000 percent profit.

Still, the iconoclastic 68-year-old bachelor hasn't spent 18 years and counting of his life cataloguing signatures merely so he could hit the occasional big score. Not by a long shot.

"It's my labor of love," John Castagno says. "This is my legacy to the art world."

Note: This article originally appeared under a pseudonym. Jeremy Rosenberg, Art Connoisseur's executive editor, was the true author.