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What Is Provenance and Why Is It Important?

Provenance is the history of the ownership and transmission of an object. In the art world, provenance includes the auction houses, dealers, or galleries that have sold an item, the private or institutional collections in which the item has been held, and exhibitions where the item has been displayed.

Experts are interested in the provenance of an item for several reasons, the most important of which is that well-documented provenance helps confirm that an item is authentic. Undocumented gaps of time in an object’s history could indicate that the item may be a forgery with a fabricated history. If an object was purportedly made in the 18th century, but the oldest records of its existence date to only thirty years ago, the object may not be authentic.

Exhibition history, such as documents noting inclusion in specific gallery shows, or information confirming that a piece has been displayed in a museum’s collection, is also important because this documentation confirms the location of the item through time, supporting authenticity. Previous inclusion in an important museum collection or groundbreaking exhibition can, but does not always, increase the desirability of the item to potential buyers.

The allure of celebrity is another reason why provenance is important to many collectors. For instance, buyers paid thousands of dollars for cookie jars once owned by the famous Pop artist Andy Warhol, but the same cookie jars would have sold for $25 if an ordinary collector had been the previous owner. A piece of silver or porcelain once owned by a Russian Czar or British Royalty would interest buyers attracted to the history of the object as well as collectors lured by the decorative merits of the object itself. A paper published in the Journal of Advanced Appraisal studies recommended that unusual provenance merits, on average, a 15% increase in the re-sale value of a specific item.

Finally, provenance documentation can prove that the item has not been stolen and that the current owner has a clear title for the item that can legally be passed to the buyer upon purchase.

Be wary of grandiose statements about the provenance of an item that cannot be proven with documentation. Verbal history can be interesting, but there should also be old photographs of the item in the family collection, bills of sale, and other documentation that can prove the statements are true. Memory, including family lore, is not always accurate and tends to inflate over time.

Catalogues Raisonnés
Catalogues raisonnés are complete, systematic, and critical listings of all the known works of a single artist or maker. They provide comprehensive information, including provenance, for each artwork or item recognized as created by the artist or maker at the time of publication. An expert will often begin their research by locating an object in a catalog raisonné.

Types of Provenance Documentation
You probably have some of the following types of provenance documentation for the object that you own:

  • Receipt, Invoice, or Bill of Sale: these documents serve to confirm the date that an item previously changed owners, and the identity of the parties involved, such as a private owner, gallery, or auction house. This document can also serve as proof that the person owns the item they are selling and therefore has a clear title for the object that can be legally passed to the buyer upon purchase.
  • Previous appraisal: an object may have been previously appraised, possibly as part of an estate or for insurance purposes. Because values fluctuate over time, a previous appraisal serves to document the age and ownership of an object, rather than the current value.
  • Inclusion in an auction/ illustration in an auction catalog: if an item has been previously included in an auction, the sale result is usually available to the public. If the auction house publishes catalogs, the item could be illustrated in the catalog for the sale.
  • Illustration in an exhibition catalog from a museum or gallery: if an item has been included in a museum or gallery exhibition, it will be mentioned and usually illustrated in a catalog published along with the exhibition.
  • Inventory number indicating de-accession from a museum or corporate collection: items held in museum or corporate collections are given inventory numbers, and these numbers accompany the work when it leaves the collection. They serve to verify that the work or object was part of this collection during a specific time period.