Provenance research in art is the pursuit of truth in the form of facts, data and historical evidence regarding a work of art’s ownership history. Although it has not been an academic discipline or professional practice for very long, provenance has always been an essential part of collecting, acting primarily as evidence in support of good title, and often even of a work’s authenticity.
Traditionally, art dealers tended to refer to an art work’s ownership history as a way to highlight its importance, prestige, and unquestionable authenticity. However, over time, historical events and technological advancement have played a crucial role in the changing connotations of the word provenance.
Art has always been a victim of war. Millions of objects were displaced during the Second World War, as well as in conflicts prior and since, creating at times irrecuperable loss in the documented ownership history that should ideally follow an object, from its time of creation until the present owner. This also translates into a loss of the intellectual knowledge relating to the work.
As it currently stands, provenance research is yet to become a rigorous practice in the art world. Provenance information, or lack thereof, can be a point of contention where transactions are concerned. As provenance researchers we are regularly asked to conduct pre-transactional due diligence on art works and are often presented with no more than a factsheet, which is customarily composed of the artwork’s passport information (artist, title, date, medium, signature), and occasionally its provenance, bibliography and exhibition/market history.
For many collectors, this factsheet was part of the paperwork they received when they first acquired the artwork and depending on when that initial transaction took place, the factsheet might never have been fact checked. Ideally, every piece of information recorded in the factsheet needs to be supported by documentary evidence and the correct paperwork. For example, if the factsheet purports that the artwork was included in an exhibition, a copy of the exhibition catalogue should be part of the documentation. In its absence, a photocopy of the cover of the catalogue and all relevant pages making direct reference to the work in question should suffice. If the work was purchased from a dealer, gallery, art fair or auction house, copies of the original invoice and proof of payment should be added to the records. If the work was inherited from a family member, a copy of the will naming the beneficiary should also be attached to the artwork’s file. All such documentation accumulated over time testifies to good title and continuous ownership of an artwork. This ideal outcome can be jeopardised by unaddressed historical gaps in the ownership history of the work prior to it coming into the current owner’s possession.
Example Artwork Verso
It is the duty of every collector to tend to the good standing of their collection. When this due diligence process is postponed until the next transaction, without ever being addressed while in possession of the current owner, it presents a shortcoming on behalf of all parties involved. First and foremost it distinguishes the collector as a keeper and guardian of the collection whose purpose is to add value to their collection.
Undertaking provenance research to clarify any gaps in an artwork’s timeline should be regarded as an essential component of collections management and be run in parallel with other practices such as insurance, auditing and condition checks.
The first step is to check the necessary online databases and resources (almost all of which are free) and use those results to plan further research where needed. I created the Art Market Academy to fill this very specific gap in the market — offering collectors all the tools they need in order to begin conducting their own due diligence process.
There has long been a misconception that provenance research is both very lengthy and very expensive. However, it doesn’t need to be either. If due diligence is undertaken as a routine process, without the time constrains of an immediately pending transaction or other similar deadlines, then the research constraints and the stress of urgency are significantly reduced.
The same applies to collections. Undertaking provenance research was once considered a daunting and discouraging endeavour. However, today we have risk assessment-rating tools which analyse the state of documentation of a collection. These allow us to sift out the red flags and offer suggestions as to how to address them, often in a fraction of the time ordinarily needed to research a collection when there is no specific methodology in place.
There is definite progress in the provenance field; we just need to spread the word and unite in embracing it.
Course Outline: Practical Provenance Research: The Practical How-To-Guide