Provenance research is the study of the history of ownership for an artwork or object. The goal is to determine every single time the artwork changed hands from its current whereabouts all the way back to the moment it was created. There are many reasons for partaking in such a herculean task. Provenance research can unearth a treasure trove of information about the changing tastes of the art market, socioeconomics, and even politics. It can also reveal a spiderweb of looting, deceit, and illicit activity.
There are many strategies to conducting provenance research, the most telling of which might simply be examining the object itself. Ownership marks, brands, seals, insignias, and auction lot numbers often adorn the back of older paintings and drawings. These marks served many functions from asserting prestige, discouraging theft, inventorying a large collection, and ensuring restitution if the object was found. A seasoned provenance researcher might learn to recognize the scrawl of a lot number, a royal coat of arms, or the artful ownership markings on luxury manuscripts. One slightly problematic caveat of asserting ownership through marks is that many times newer owners wanted to erase the marks of previous owners. Sometimes erased marks can be seen by exposing an artwork to ultraviolet light. Besides marks, other information can be gleaned from looking at the materials of an object. Some collectors utilized specific frames or mounts for their collections. More intensive investigation into types of pigments or the canvas used for a painting might help establish what time period it is from.
Of course, nothing beats good old-fashioned research. Clues about an artwork’s checkered past can be found in a variety of sources. Institutional records from museums or other historical sites may have information on the object’s acquisition, useful conservation notes, and curatorial research on the object. These may come with appendices like sales records and exhibition catalogs which can be cross referenced. An artist’s catalogue raisonne is also a good starting point in lieu of and in tandem to institutional records. The raisonne will include some rudimentary provenance information, attributed works, known locations of artworks, and other sources to reference. Artworks will also leave marks in exhibition catalogs, auction pamphlets, bills of sale, photo archives, and other official sources. Privacy concerns may prevent auction houses, dealers, or other resellers from disclosing personal information about buyers, but it is still very useful to track when an artwork may have appeared at auction or switched hands. The last and most fickle of sources is personal testimony. Personal accounts can produce valuable nuggets of information but should be used with caution and backed up with verifiable written documentation when possible.
One of the early problems with provenance research was that it was very localized. Individual institutions would have their own documented research that was mostly kept to themselves. Art theft and forgeries happened at a such rapid rate that researchers really could not keep up on an individualized basis. In 1991 the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) created the “Art Loss Register,” a massive online database that continues to be the largest resource documenting stolen artworks. Provenance research really took off in the cultural heritage world after a 1998 conference in Washington between the United States Department of State and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which discussed implementing standards for dealing with artworks looted during World War II. Additional scrutiny was decided to be given to works that changed hands in Europe between 1933 and 1945, the years Hitler rose and fell from power.
During the fallout from the conference, organizations such as the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) met to create their own provenance guidelines for cultural heritage institutions to follow. In 2001 AAM helped launch the Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP) to help owners find stolen artworks and for museums to post works under suspicion. Search capabilities were implemented using the Getty’s massive Union List of Artist Names (ULAN). Today, there are many online databases devoted to provenance research, such as the Getty Provenance Index or the Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative. Auction records can be found online through databases like Artnet or Christie’s. The internet has ushered in a new way for provenance research to be shared with others and for collaborative efforts between institutions to blossom. The internet also has the unique ability to engage the general public in provenance research. Through specialized projects on popular photo archival tools like FLICKR, volunteers can do tasks such as give known information (with sources) about people in photos, identify seals of ownership, or transcribe text that is unable to be read by ocular character recognition (OCR).
This is just a small sampling of some of the strategies and tools used by provenance researchers. Despite the many resources available provenance research is costly, imprecise, and can be as prone to forgery as an artwork itself. There are very few objects that have complete provenance, in fact the vast majority don’t. There is a good chance that crucial chunks of an artwork’s ownership chain were destroyed or simply lost with time. Provenance research is never fully completed. New information can always change old convictions and there are usually plenty of gaps to be filled.
Art is not generally made or passed along with the notion that it is going to be tracked. Even today, there is no industry standard for recording a sale or any other change of hand. Provenance information is more of a standard in the cultural heritage market than the art market as a whole. In fact, the art market is one of the largest unregulated markets in the world next to drugs. What happens in the near future when our presently up and coming modern artists gain notoriety and their work becomes sought after. The familiar cycle of looting, frauds, and forgeries starts up and provenance researchers still have to grasp at straws because there is no concrete system in place. What the art market needs going forward is preemptive provenance. A standard, transparent, and undisputable way to record an exchange.
Provenance research is like detective work except sometime the case might be hundreds of years old and there is nobody left to make a confession. Other times people want to make a false confession with the hopes making some good money. There are many ways to decipher an object’s storied history from examining its physical characteristics, to researching it, or consulting provenance resources on the internet. Despite the options, provenance research is difficult to accomplish and is rarely completely accurate. The art market, being one of the most unregulated markets, does not have universal systems in place that accurately report exchanges. Realizing how crucial provenance can be in restituting stolen works or identifying forgeries, the art market as a whole needs to develop a way to preemptively track provenance from the start.
-Article by: Christopher Rahmeh