Originating from the French verb “provenir” (to stem from), provenance is the history of ownership of art, antiques and collectibles. As an all-important record of an art object’s trail from its origin to its present owner, provenance affirms the authenticity of the work and increases its art-market value. If a famous personality created or owned the work, for example, or if it had any special historical or economic significance, the provenance reveals this and this further adds to its appeal.
Establishing provenance for art, antiques and collectibles
For provenance, you need sales receipts, gallery stickers, exhibition catalogs, catalogs raisonnés, ownership records, newspaper/magazine articles about the work, articles/letters by art experts describing the work and photographs of the work with the artist. Audio or video of the artist discussing the work or the testimony of someone close to the artist is also acceptable.
Provenance, however, is not always well documented, and there may be plenty gaps for various reasons.
• No records survive for antique works
• Neglect in keeping records or preserving sales documentation when the works have been in the family for centuries
• Business closure in the case of many dealers and auction houses from previous centuries
• Anonymous buying and selling by many rich collectors
• Documentation loss due to natural disasters such as earthquake, fire, flooding
• Lack of protection from weather decay or pests
• Losing documents when moving
• Archives lying simply undiscovered or, due to political reasons, inaccessible
In the absence of valid documentation, establishing provenance can be tricky. Especially as the art-market boom has led to a proliferation of forgeries and con men like John Drewe, whose phony art and documentation fooled everyone for ages.
Fakes apart, looted or stolen works, of wartime era or illegally exported, are a major concern. Be especially wary when buying art and antiques that were in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. With all the complexities of restituting the more than 250,000 Nazi-looted artworks to their former owners or their descendants, a checkered provenance might very well land you in the legal soup.
It is important therefore to consult a reputed expert—someone with in-depth knowledge about that particular art/artist, several scholarly articles/publications to his/her name and well-respected art-world credentials.
Expert appraisal and authentication can, on occasion, lead to a startling revelation, as happened in the case of Tammy H. of Colorado. Thom Pattie, the chief Worthologist here at WorthPoint, recognized her rescued-from-a-dump painting as “Coin De Paris, Rue de Meaux,” a work by the 20th-century Japanese artist Takanori Oguiss. The painting later garnered $103,000 at Sotheby’s.
Here is a video of Thom Pattie talking about his work.
Tips for collectors
Get certificates of authentication, warranties and guarantees from the seller.
Provenance documents must mention the work in question and must be original.
Check and cross-check previous owners, galleries and auction houses.
Research auctions at ArtPrice.com and ArtNet.com.
Check the lost or stolen works database at the London-based Art Loss Register and at the International Foundation for Art Research.
The Getty Provenance Index
The National Gallery of Art Provenance Search
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Chinese Art – Research into Provenance