Provenance: What is it and why does it matter?

Provenance is a very important concept in art collecting and one which I often explain to clients in going through the purchasing process.

Merriam-Webster defines provenance as “the history of ownership of a valued object.” In practice provenance encompasses which galleries, collectors or museums have owned and traded the work of art in its lifetime. This ownership history information allows a buyer to purchase a work of art with some level of assurance that the piece has come through known hands to arrive at its current location. Good provenance, or a clean linear tracking of the works ownership through time, is one indication that the seller has good title to the work and that the work has not been stolen. Often news articles relating to stolen works of art reference questionable or shoddy provenance which means that either the listed or identified provenance for a work of art is missing some key information or dates or that it seems to be forged in some way perhaps to cover up illegal activity.

Often buyers use provenance as a factor in assessing the value of a work of art. Some works that have traded hands many times are worth slightly less for this extensive ownership history. However, if a work was part of an esteemed art collection in the past that element of positive provenance would perhaps increase the value of the work.

For example, assume there are two similar works of art by the same artist created at around the same time in the same place and of the same medium. One was sold by the artist to a prominent art dealer for his personal art collection where it has remained ever since. The other was purchased from the artist by a collector and has since been owned by six collectors and has appeared at auction four times. The art market may assess a higher value to the first work as it has been privately held for all this time. The second work, in this scenario, though still valuable has a more colorful provenance and therefore will probably not be seen as rare or as special. In addition, the fact that the first has been kept in a single collection may perhaps mean that it is in good condition and has not bounced around in crates and boxes from gallery to auction to hang on walls all over the world.

How can you tell the provenance of a work of art? First, a reputable dealer or gallery should provide a buyer with some form of provenance information or whatever she has. Chances are that the dealer herself did the provenance research before purchasing the work for her inventory, and she will then disclose it to potential buyers. Auction houses will also provide provenance information on lots up for sale in their catalogue entries. Another way to check provenance is to look at the stickers on the back of a work of art. Galleries and auction houses will have put their stickers on the backs of the works of art over time indicating that the work of art passed through their inventory, and these are often preserved. For many artists there are books known as catalogues raissone which are very helpful as well. These are large volumes listing all known works of art by that particular artist. Such publications will provide provenance information as well as illustrations or images of the works and other critical information.

When you have a work of art and need to verify provenance, such as before you sell it, there are some resources available to you. The Art Loss Register is one place to turn. They are a database of information on stolen and non-stolen works of art and their staff can run a search for you, for a small but worthwhile fee, to check that the item in question is not listed in the missing artworks database. This is a basic due diligence step that one should take in trading in historical works of art and can be very helpful to compiling the provenance for a work of art. Another search service is known as IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research. IFAR is a non-profit art research organization. They, too. offer an art research service both to properly authenticate a work of art and to assess provenance as well. Finally, a long-time and well-respected dealer in a particular area or field will often be able to provide information on the work and its provenance.

All of this boils down to one thing: provenance is important both to the authenticity and value of a work of art and can be the critical link in pairing a buyer and a seller for the work of art.