The Fine Art Collector’s Guide: Provenance 101
Many new fine art collectors wonder about what is provenance in art? How to write art provenance? How to do provenance research? Some of you may click this article link to find art provenance examples. In this article, we will show you how to enhance the worth and legitimacy of any work of art by documenting its history.
What is Art Provenance?
Provenance is the ownership record of an object. In the world of fine art, it is used as a guide to the authenticity of a work. It includes details of title, information about auction houses, dealers or galleries that have sold the item, exhibitions it has been part of and other details surrounding an object’s history.
Art provenance plays a key role in determining the value and legitimacy of a work. Good provenance leaves no room for doubt that a work of art is genuine, is by the credited artist and belongs to its owner. Issues of provenance have led to artworks being repossessed by a former owner or serious devaluation. With fine art investment, it is essential to verify the provenance in order to avoid potential title disputes and other legal difficulties down the road.
What to Look for When Investing in a Work of Art
A well-documented history is one of the most important elements to consider when looking to purchase fine art objects. Be wary of gaps in an object’s history or records. All time must be accounted for from when the object was purported to be created to the present, and any gaps in documentation leave room for doubt as to authenticity.
Types of Documentation
There are many forms of provenance. A statement of authenticity signed by an artist or expert on the artist is the best possible art provenance example, however, there are plenty of other options as well, including:
- Bills of sale
A bill of sale is essentially an invoice. It is a record of purchase between the buyer and seller and should include information about the work of art, the sellers and buyers and details of the sale.
- Photographs or film footage
If a work of art has been included in an exhibition, been previously appraised or sold at auction, it is likely that the work was documented on film. These documentations can further the work’s authenticity.
- Previous appraisals by experts
An appraisal is a valuation of an object. It represents an estimate of what an object is worth when sold at market, however an appraised value can ebb and flow over time. Appraisals involve going through auction and private sale records, comparing a work against similar recent sales, and looking at provenance history. Appraisal documents usually include descriptions of the object, unique elements of the piece and a valuation. While an appraised value can be dated, the documents from an appraiser can underscore the provenance of an artwork.
- Exhibition labels or texts
Inclusion in a gallery show or museum exhibition can greatly enhance the authenticity of an artwork as well. Be sure to look for exhibition documents, as well as any information confirming where or when a piece was displayed publicly, as this can affirm the location of an object across time. It also underscores the authenticity of a work, as museum scholars are typically respected experts in their fields and are careful to verify any works they are including in an exhibition.
- Auction house sale catalogues
If a work was previously sold at auction, the details from an auction catalogue and/or auction house appraisal can also be used for provenance.
- Catalogue Raisonné
Artists often have catalogue raisonés that outline the entirety of their body of work. These contain provenance history and other important details for each work. If you are looking to purchase something by a certain artist, be sure to consult their catalogue raisonné and ensure the work is included within the listing. In some rare instances, new works are discovered that had not been documented in the catalogue raisonné. However, do remember that these are outlier occurrences and certainly not commonplace.
No matter what records you are looking at, be wary of forgeries or false documentation, which is becoming more common in the digital era. It might be worth getting provenance documents verified by an expert before moving forward with any fine art investment.
How to Enhance Art Provenance
While provenance of an artwork cannot be acquired out of thin air, there are ways to enhance legitimacy if documentation already exists.
- Hire an expert
Some art historians or experts offer services whereby they conduct provenance research to affirm or add to an object’s provenance. This includes archival research, combing through auction house records and even verifying the identities of every previously listed owner on a provenance sheet. These experts also understand how to write art provenance in the clearest way, which is also an asset. As mentioned earlier, it can even be useful to have documents validated by an expert in the field to further confirm the authenticity.
- Work with a conservator
A conservator can help establish or reinforce facts about a painting’s provenance using chemical analysis, X-ray imagery, UV photography and more. Testing materials can reveal a painting’s origins and age, and either unveil inconsistencies in provenance or underscore provenance documentation. These scientific procedures can be useful for suspected misattributions or forgeries.
- Loan your object
A temporary loan to a museum or cultural institution can help scholars verify your work and/or provide additional scholarly records related to the object. When exhibiting a painting as part of a larger show, museum curators will perform extensive research into each individual work of art. They will make connections between time and place and explore the larger themes of an era. Loaning an object for an exhibition is almost like hiring an expert to validate an artwork. Inclusion in a show at a museum or cultural institution also creates public records that track the location of an object.
How to Protect your Records
Provenance is useless if it cannot be validated with physical records. It is critical to maintain an object file that includes every document related to the artwork’s history. Keep all details related to a work of art in a single file and save it digitally, physically and make copies. Original sources should be archived appropriately, such as in a fireproof cabinet or a bank security deposit box.
When considering investing in paintings or other works of art, do not fall for the ‘verbal history’ trap. Documentation is the name of the game when it comes to validating a painting’s provenance. If an auction house, gallerist or dealer cannot provide anything beyond anecdotal evidence of an artwork’s authenticity, it is not a good idea to move forward with a purchase.
It is also a good practice to have your art objects photographed (even if there are older photographs from previous appraisals or public/private sales). Helpful archival photos will include a full view of an object from multiple angles and document any special features or flaws at close range. Flaws can include small tears in a canvas, a chipped piece of marble or sun bleaching. Depending on the age of the artwork you are acquiring, small flaws do not necessarily reduce its value. In fact, some objects of art are identified by their imperfections (think about the Venus de Milo, for example). It may also be useful to photograph any primary materials related to the object. Paperwork, signed bills of sale, gallery or museum labels and more can all be photographed and stored in an object file.
Above all else, keep a neat record. Once provenance is established, these details need to be carefully catalogued. Provenance may be organized in a list or in paragraph form, with the sequence of ownership listed chronologically. Make it easy to track the movement of the work across time.
Never underestimate the importance of provenance when building an art collection or purchasing an individual art object. Key takeaways for anyone looking to invest in paintings or art are:
- Insist on physical proof/documentation of provenance
- Beware of unrecorded gaps of time
- When in doubt, hire an expert
- Protect your provenance documents carefully
As mentioned above, the strongest documentation of provenance is a signed statement of authenticity from the artist. If you are planning to make a contemporary art purchase in the near future, consider working with David Stanley Hewett, or visiting his Karuizawa Studio in Japan. As a contemporary artist at work today, David can provide beautiful avant-garde works with zero doubts of provenance.