What Is Provenance—and Why Every Art Collector Should Care About It

Catherine Edmonson loves a good story. It’s why she majored in art history as an undergrad and why she went on to earn her master’s from Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. “It’s why I can spend hours at the Metropolitan Museum’s Temple of Dendur, letting my imagination run wild,” she laughs.

Hers is a commonly held sentiment. Every day, about 30,000 people stand in line to visit Paris’s Louvre, the most visited art museum in the world. We love to gaze at masterpieces, each an opportunity for time travel, to see the world through another perspective. We want to know what inspired the artists and the dynamic stories behind the moments in time each canvas represents.

But for every piece of art, whether it’s hanging in a private home or a renowned museum, there’s another story art collectors should know. This is the story of provenance or the ownership history of an artwork. Provenance starts when an artwork was first created and continues with each owner. Every exchange creates another link in the chain.

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For nearly a decade, Edmonson worked at Christie’s New York managing appraisals and sales in the Trusts and Estates department. Now an art consultant and art history instructor, she helps clients navigate the auction market before buying or selling artworks. “Understanding a piece’s provenance is a huge part of that,” she says. “For collectors, it’s the difference between purchasing a piece of art that’s worth a little or a lot.”

So, What Is Provenance in Art?

Evaluating art is an art in and of itself—not a science, says Edmonson. “It’s not like selling a Honda Civic or a BMW, where you can check Kelly Bluebook and everyone generally agrees on the value.”

Lots of factors, from condition to exhibition history, contribute to an artwork’s value.

Provenance is an important piece of that puzzle. Arguably it is the most important, as it reveals information like the first owner; if or how that owner was related to the artist; how many hands the art passed through. Provenance might include a collection of letters, photography, or newspaper clippings about an exchange.

When provenance is well-documented, buyers—and appraisers—feel more confident that a piece is authentic and that its attribution is correct.

Anthony Barzilay Freund, the editorial director and director of fine art at 1stDibs, explains that provenance has played an essential role in social status for centuries, as well.

“Provenance has been important for as long as art has been considered a status symbol. Even before there was an official art market, wars would be waged, countries conquered and treasures sent home as symbols not just of the victor’s primacy but their appropriation of the elegance, erudition and accomplishments of the vanquished culture,” says Freund. “As a bourgeois class developed, the newly rich would buy treasures with a royal or aristocratic provenance as a way to assert their own place at the top of the social pecking order.”

For curators and historians, provenance is fascinating because it reveals what society has valued over a period of time. “The objects people value convey notions of cultural identity as it changes over time, and acts as reminders of our collective humanity,” writes Molly Boarati, associate curator of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, in her article, Why Does Provenance Matter?

Beyond the question of whose life has a work of art touched, Boarati adds “and whose has it made more difficult? Who had the power in each transfer, and why? And precisely whose cultural identity does the work convey?”

These are the stories Boarati believes museums have an obligation to tell so that current and future generations have a more complete understanding of how factors like generational wealth and power systems influence art’s value.

Galleries and art historians take these questions seriously. When they research an artwork’s provenance, they follow Standards Regarding the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era that were established by the American Association of Museums and Association of Art Museum Directors in 1998. They also adhere to Standards Regarding Archaeological Material and Ancient Art, which were set forth in 2008. These standards are important, especially when there are gaps in the ownership chain or a lack of documentation.

What does that mean for you, as a buyer? Be sure to do your research, and consult an expert to confirm that the provenance sellers offer is legitimate and verifiable.

How to Learn About the Provenance of Your Art

If you’re curious about an artwork’s provenance, you have a few options. At an art gallery, the staff is eager to educate. At an auction, you can check the catalog.

Regional auction houses rarely have the resources to produce extensive online catalogs, but buyers should still enquire about provenance, Edmonson urges. “Specialists have an astonishing depth of knowledge and are keen to share their experience.”

Major auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, publish provenance information online. According to Edmonson, what isn’t listed is just as important as what is.

As an example, she points to an oil painting by Jacob Grimmer listed in Christie’s catalog. It’s titled The month of January, with the sign of Aquarius, and has the following provenance:

De Vaulx Collection, France.
Auguste Fourcroy (1909-1988), Brussegem, Belgium, by 1963, as ‘Martin van Valckenborch’.
Anonymous sale; Christie’s, London, 13 December 2000, lot 2, when acquired by Alice and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

“So we know that Fourcroy acquired the painting in France from the De Vaulx Collection,” Edmonson explains. “The Chateau de Vaulx, a grand house in the French countryside Burgundy, was linked to the Damas family. An important Burgundian family, including a branch named Damas de Vaulx, were lords of Vaulx from 1471 to 1793.”

According to Edmonson, we can assume the Grimmer picture was there for ages, but we can’t be certain. “We also see that the picture was attributed to another artist until the 1970s,” she adds. “Scholars often confer and debate attribution. Often, they agree—but not always!”

Some collectors are also turning to the tech world to help verify the origins of their artworks. Art Recognition, a Zurich-based technology company, uses Artificial Intelligence for art authentication and the detection of art forgeries.”This technology scrutinizes a multitude of visual attributes, including brushstrokes, color palette, texture, and composition to identify intricate patterns and resemblances between the artwork under examination and authenticated pieces,” says Carina Popovici, chief executive officer
and co-founder of Art Recognition.

The takeaway? Changing an attribution can upgrade or downgrade a painting’s value, so if you’re purchasing an investment piece, it’s always worth it to ask an expert.

How You Can Create Provenance with Your Art Collection

While you may never wield the power of Ambrose Vollard, gallerist to now-famous artists like Cezanne and Picasso, you can and should take risks on emerging artists whose art you love. “Vollard was mocked for supporting Cubism,” Edmonson says. “But we see how that has changed over the past century!

Plus, like supporting local farmers at a curb market, buying from local artists encourages creativity in our communities. “Buy what you love. Then you can be the first in a chain of provenance that will stretch into the future—like planting a tree even though you’ll never stand under its shade, but your grandchildren will.”

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