Establishing Provenance Means More Money

Portrait of Winston Churchill

Portrait of Winston Churchill

Do you have any evidence that Washington slept on that bed you want to sell? What about the satin bustier? Did it give more oomph to Mae West’s figure? More curves to Madonna’s? Did that painting really hang in Winston Churchill’s study?

If the answers are “yes,” then you’ve got great provenance.

Great what? In the worlds of art, antiques and collectibles, provenance is something that gives a lithograph, French sideboard or Barbie doll more pizzazz, more interest—more money.

It’s the history of the item. It’s the Hansel-and-Gretel trail of where it began and who owned it or used it along the way.

Establishing provenance for art, antiques and collectibles

What do you need to establish provenance? It’s pretty straightforward—sales receipts, gallery stickers, exhibition catalogs, catalogues raisonnés (for those who took Spanish in high school, that’s French for “carefully thought out,” in other words an annotated catalog), ownership records, newspaper/magazine articles about the work, articles/letters by art experts describing the work and even photographs of the artist or craftsman standing next to it. Audio or video of the artist discussing his or her creation or the testimony of someone close to the artist is also acceptable.

1920-french-sideboard1 1920-french-sideboard-closeup-top

(If you’d like to learn more about an item pictured in this story, click on the image.)

Of course, record keeping through the generations—or even from last week for some of us—can be haphazard. In addition, there are many situations that are beyond control. Some are:

No records survive for antique works

Neglect in keeping records or preserving sales documentation when the works have been in the family for centuries

Dealers and auction houses from previous centuries go out of business

Wealthy collectors who take great pains to buy and sell anonymously

Documentation loss due to natural disasters such as earthquake, fire, flooding

Lack of protection from weather decay or pests

Losing documents when moving

Undiscovered or inaccessible archives

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 decades.

Forged P. Pollaiuolo (1441-1496)

Forged P. Pollaiuolo (1441-1496)

Looted or stolen works, from a 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.

Henri Le Sidaner’s "Les Arbres Fleuris" (1933)

Henri Le Sidaner’s "Les Arbres Fleuris" (1933)

So it’s important to consult a reputable expert—someone with in-depth knowledge about that particular art/artist, several scholarly articles/publications to his/her name and well-respected credentials in the art, antiques and collectibles worlds.

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  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. Tammy tells her story in a WorthPoint video.

Tips for establishing provenance

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.

Find out what has gone for what at WorthPoint’s Worthopedia, a vast database that contains prices, photos and descriptions of millions of antiques and collectibles. Also take a look at GoAntique’s PriceMiner, which has only a $9.95 monthly subscription fee.

A valuable source for finding out if works were lost or stolen is the London-based Art Loss Register and the International Foundation for Art Research.


The World Wide Web has opened the door for easier provenance research. No more having to trek to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles or Harvard’s hallowed halls in Cambridge. Some clicks, and a wealth of information is available to you.

The Getty Provenance Index has more than 1 million records going back to the end of the 16th century.

The National Gallery of Art Provenance search allows you to search for information by artist, title and subject. It also provides provenance-search tips.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s site deals with Met-owned works, but can give you a better understanding of what establishing provenance is all about.

Chinese Art –Research into Provenance says its mission is to document “records relating to dealers and collectors who specialized in Chinese art during the first half of the twentieth century.”

Protect your investment in art, antiques and collectibles by spending some time researching provenance. You’ll be glad you did. And be sure to follow Jim Sturgill’s advice on inventorying your collection. You’ll be glad you did that, too.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth

Join WorthPoint on Twitter and Facebook.

(Visited 47 times, 1 visits today)