What is Original Art?

On face value the question “What is original art?” seems to be a simple one – a unique piece of art created as a first of its kind (an original). But nothing worthwhile is ever without complications, and creating and defining original art is no exception.

Originality in art is a headache for many artists who are trying to find their own style and groove. Nobody wants to be an imitator or a fraud and copy the work of others, but in a world where everything seems to have been said and done before, it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to be “100% original”.

Define ‘Original’ and ‘Originality’ in Art?

To understand what is original art, and what is not original art, we should first understand the core definitions of original and originality.

Definition of Original 

The definition of ‘original’ according to Merriam-webster is “a source or cause from which something arises. That from which a copy, reproduction, or translation is made. A work composed firsthand  – e.g This painting is a Van Gogh original.”

Definition of Originality

Originality is the quality or state of being original –  freshness of aspect, design, or style; – the power of independent thought or imagination.

What Constitutes An Original Piece of Art

Based on our definition of ‘original’ above we can define original artworks on two broad levels. The first is the physical singular creation of a piece of art from which a reproduction can be made. The second more confusing element, is the originality of the original. How fresh is the aspect, design and style of this piece? How close is the concept to previous work? This is a much debated area in the art world, with no definitive answer as to what constitutes original art. There are those that believe art cannot be completely original as we are just extensions of what has come before. We are building on the creations and works of past artists. It is impossible to not be influenced by what we have seen before. On the other hand, there are those who believe that gifted individuals have the ability for spontaneous originality. An ability to experience and perceive the human condition or the universe, and translate it creatively into art. Just because they have come to the same or similar conclusions as a previous artists, that does not make the work any less original.


what-is-original-art The skeptics will counter, that history is littered with artistic thieves who have capitalized on the work of past artists. This is undoubtedly true in many cases, but as Picasso once said “Good artists copy. Great artists steal,” a great artist can take ownership of past ideas and improve on them. The critics can debate this originality for themselves. But what is original art today, will always become a reproduction tomorrow.

Orders of Originality

Under this line of thought, we can conclude there are various orders of originality. The first-order of originality would be the absolute first instance an artistic concept or style was born. This can be pinpointed to a single instance. The second order of originality would be an artist who has come to the same conclusion via a different path and so forth. If we traced influence and origin of art through time, we would probably find all art is interconnected in some way. Lending weight to the argument that no art can be truly original. Maybe every paint artist was influenced in some  by the first prehistoric man or woman who ground pigment.  But such tenuous links should not detract from contemporary originality in art, and the order of originality is not all encompassing. The graffiti artist paints a mural on a wall, but can we detract any originality over time from the first cave painters. It would be ludicrous and slightly pointless to attempt such an analysis. But the point highlights

Why is Original Art Important?

Originality is the pinnacle of creativity. Thus the value of an original artwork should always exceed the value of a reproduction. However, at present reproductions are endemic and indiscernible. This has spawned an illegal trade in fake fine art, and it is even estimated 20% of the paintings in museums are actually fake reproductions. If the art experts and specialists of our national museums are continually fooled by fakes, then we can safely assume some reproductions are undetectable. A scary thought for art collectors.

What is Original Art Work When Importing and Exporting

At Matchstick-8 we understand the simple measure of an ‘original art work’ in the marketplace. That which is not a reproduction. This can be an important issue when importing or exporting art overseas. The customs duties on art work varies depending on the country, and also the value of the art which you are importing. You should always be clear on the legal definition of ‘original art’ in the country to which you are importing.

Importing and Exporting Original Art

When you are importing or exporting original art you must fully understand the local customs tariffs to the country to which you are importing. Also, it is important to know the definitions of original/fine/contemporary art to ensure you are within the rules and tariffs of the country.

What is original art to a customs officer?

Generally it is a piece of art that is handmade. They cannot be mass produced, stamped or produced by mechanical replication. The frame, holder and mounting can be included as duty free if they are part of the original artwork. The frame should also be inline with a generic cost relative to the picture. In other words, dont expect to import a diamond studded platinum frame containing a $3 flea market acrylic still life,  and still expect to be duty free. In other words, the art should not be used as a vehicle to avoid import duty.

Art Import Documentation

Art deceleration documents may indicate the definition of what is original art. For example, an artwork declaration document with the courier service FEDEX requires you to confirm the originality of the art work you are sending. The FEDEX Original Works of Art Statement for Duty Free Entry document contains the following definition – “Any sculptures or statuary included in that invoice are the original works or models or one of the first twelve castings, replicas, or reproductions made from the sculptor’s original work or model; and that any etchings, engravings, woodcuts, lithographs, or prints made by other hand-transfer processes included in that invoice were printed by hand from hand-etched, hand-drawn, or hand-engraved plated, stones, or blocks.” The ‘original works of art statement’ does not include paintings, but it requires that sculptures and statues be one of the first twelve castings. This is more indicative of the difficulty in correcting a sculpture and statue than a painting. But you should not assume a painting will automatically express customs. As good practice, the artist or seller should always send the art ‘Delivery Duty Paid’.

Tips on Importing and Exporting Art

Shipments between all EU countries are Duty Free, and are also Duty Free into the USA on artworks up to $800. This will ensure that your artwork will pass swiftly through customs and no hidden costs for your customers.

  • Make sure you have labelled the package correctly as ‘Original Artwork’ and applied the correct harmonised commodity code
  • Attach any relevant labels, commercial invoice, or further documentation, so that it is clearly visible on the outside of your package.
  • Use a traceable method of shipment with a delivery date guarantee. This will enable you to track any delays in the arrival of your package, and make any follow-up enquiries easier to facilitate with your courier.
  • DO NOT Incorrectly categorize your artwork or under-declare the value of the goods in the hope of reducing the duty. This can lead to penalties far outweighing any potential gain, as well as extended delays in the receipt of the shipment by your customer.


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