Art jargon explained: provenance

Photo credit: Foter.com

Photo credit: Foter.com

Provenance is an important concept in the art market. It relates to the ownership history of an artwork. In addition to examining clues in the actual artwork, such as brushstrokes or the signature, the documentation describing its ownership history can help art experts to determine whether the work is authentic or not. Piecing together who owned the artwork in the past and where it was located geographically can be a helpful indicator of whether a certain artist created it; whether it was a later copy or an outright forgery. When a work of art is forged, the provenance documentation is often forged too. Additionally, gaps in ownership history can be problematic. Not only can it indicate that the artwork is a forgery but also that it may have been stolen at some point in the past.

Therefore, provenance is a double-edged sword. It has the potential to greatly affect the value of an artwork. For example, if a painting previously owned by Jackie Onassis comes to the market, many art collectors will gladly pay a premium. The fame of the previous owner adds an aura of desirability to the work. At the same time, an artwork’s provenance (or lack thereof) can reduce its value, render it unsaleable or leave the current owner exposed to title risk. In the case of the latter, for example, it’s possible that an artwork with an ownership history dating back to early 20th Century Germany (particularly the years 1933-1945) was looted from Jewish families by the Nazi’s before and during WWII.