Why Provenance Matters to Art Collectors

art market

Brian Ng

The Federal Bureau of Investigation recent Orlando Museum of Art raid showed the power of provenance, or a history of ownership of a work of art: According to the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant, the origin stories of 25 works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which have not also not authenticated by his estate, did not verify.

Provenance, if done well, is an important element in ensuring that works are authentic. In some cases, as with anything several hundred years or more old, this can be a convincing way to give it that metaphorical stamp of approval.

What is provenance?

Provenance can consist of any number of documents – from historical invoices of sales between owners and galleries, to documentation in exhibition catalogs, to photos of art in people’s homes or photos of work with the artist and the former owners.

“It’s the foundation of trust in the art market,” said Max Kendrick, co-founder of Fairchain, a blockchain-based provenance service, in an interview with Artsy.

Can you fake the provenance?

“Of course, anything is possible,” said Parisian gallery owner Almine Rech when asked about the provenance of the fakes, “but it’s difficult.” She said that there is usually a trace of a work, even an unfinished one, in a catalog somewhere, whether it comes from a commercial gallery, an institution or a catalog raisonné, whether it is finished or not. Especially for works from the 20th century onwards, she said, there’s a good chance there will be paperwork to back up where the work has been.

While well-known artists are more likely to have a forged provenance (like Basquiat), their works have been well documented for years, and the number of works that have not been seen by an authenticating authority, qu Whether it’s the artist or his estate is slim. For lesser-known artists, Rech said, few would be interested in forging provenance.

Provenance not only helps to avoid counterfeits

Nowadays, it is more important than ever to make sure that a work has been legally acquired before buying it. For years, the Nigerian government tried to bring back to their country what are known as the “Benin Bronzes” after the works were looted in the late 19th century, mainly by British forces, and eventually disappeared. found in many institutional collections.

Some museums in Germany, Scotland and the United States have sought to find out where their works came from and either returned or announced that they would return certain works to Nigeria. The University of Aberdeen, for example, searched its archives and discovered that its sculpture of an Oba (king), bought at auction in 1957, had been “acquired under circumstances…reprehensible”, in the words of George Boyne from the university. The university returned the work to Nigeria in a repatriation ceremony last fall.

In more recent history, works of art stolen during World War II, notably by the Nazis, have made provenance vital to the heirs of the families who owned them. One of the most famous cases is that of Maria Altmann, who sued the Austrian government under the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The Supreme Court ruled in her favour, allowing her lawsuit against the Austrian republic, where she went into arbitration to recover several Gustav Klimt works that her uncle left her before the Nazis stole them, and they finally found their path. in Austrian state museums.

by Gustav Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, one of the works looted by the Nazis finally went to Maria Altmann. Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York.

In this case and in the various cases that followed, documents such as old photographs of family homes or letters from distant relatives were used to help determine who the real owners were, even if works became institutions a half a century later. These sorts of issues continue to plague the art market, including looting during more recent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

What collectors should look for in provenance

“People don’t realize that when you’re buying a work on the primary market, provenance is an issue,” Kendrick said. They don’t think about it until decades later, or when the original collectors die and their loved ones have to figure it out, not just as a financial issue, but also a sentimental one. Collectors now know “what’s good to keep,” Rech said, but “collectors have to collect their own provenance.”

On the secondary market, collectors should look for a folder with enough documentation to trace the whereabouts of the work, both its owners and its exhibits. They should all pass expert checks. “If there are too many doubts,” Rech said, “it’s better not to buy the work.”

Another aspect of provenance to consider: it can have a huge impact on the price of a work. “If there’s not enough provenance,” Rech said, “they can’t authenticate a work,” either through an artist’s estate or a potential buyer, which can hamper its price. of resale. But on the other hand, if a work has an impressive history – for example, notable previous owners or inclusion in landmark exhibitions – its price may rise.

Provenance in the age of blockchain

Traditional routes to establishing provenance remain of paramount importance to collectors, but a system built on paper may not be reliable and digital documentation may also be falsified. “Technology is now well equipped to solve this provenance problem,” said Fairchain co-founder Charlie Jarvis.

Several companies, including Fairchain, Tagsmart, and Codex, help artists and galleries generate digital certificates tied to artwork. These certificates are backed by blockchain technology, which means that every change, such as a change in ownership or an artist giving their certification of authenticity, cannot be changed once entered. The technology itself is a cheap solution. Having a digital record of an artist’s works also creates a de facto catalog raisonné, reinforcing the provenance of works.

At a time when more and more sales are happening online, especially during the lockdowns of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of trust has become much more important. With products like digital certificates, not only can potential buyers be assured that the works they collect are authentic, but that they are being purchased from the actual owner. In a world where reliably verifiable provenance is possible, we hope fewer arts scandals will be turned into Netflix documentaries.