Krista Reuter working on Artwork Archive, copyright Krista Reuter studio.
Every art collection has its share of beloved pieces, but who determines that value?
The collector? The market? Public opinion?
The answers are often revealed through provenance work.
Sometimes the most unexpected and unknown artworks find themselves in the spotlight through this process.
Here's how to build your provenance as an artist and ensure that your artwork lives on to tell its story.
If artworks could talk, provenance is the story they would tell.
While the mere experience of a magnetic artwork is profound in its own right, it is the story behind an artwork–who made it, who owned it, where it has been, and what it reflects about the world—that dictates where an artwork belongs within art history.
Artworks are time machines.
Some artworks reveal the world as the most powerful people that time wanted it to be seen. Some artworks provide insight into reality through the artist’s eyes.
Provenance work sheds valuable light on which version of a story you are looking at.
So, what exactly is provenance?
Again, the provenance of an artwork is the story of its life.
This story is often nuanced: the object is born from its creator, the artist, who probably loves the artwork more than anyone ever will. But in order to have a real future, the work must be taken over and protected by another person or institution until there is an eventual changing of the guard.
Artworks that are, say, 2000 years old, have had many different homes. Many important artworks have giant pieces missing from their biographies due to war, theft, natural disasters, or neglect.
One of the most remarkable provenance stories can be read in The Hare with the Amber Eyes. The author, Edmund de Waal, is a ceramicist who inherited 264 wood and ivory netsuke from his family who lost their empire of artworks and books during World War II.
Their maid smuggled their netsuke collection in a straw mattress and kept it safe until she reunited with the remaining family members after the war. By tracing the provenance of the delicate, matchbox-sized artworks, the “potter who writes” brought his family’s story back to life and illuminated a crucial historical period in Vienna.
Installation of torn paper by Krista Reuter, copyright Krista Reuter Studio.
For artists and collectors, provenance work is everything.
Our artworks and collections will outlive us and tell the story of this time in our lives.
Keep the information updated and correct. When information is left out, the work is more difficult and sometimes impossible to track down.
For example, if a museum wants to exhibit an artwork in your collection, the more information included, the smoother the process will be for both parties. Even a minor misspelling can result in a piece being overlooked or displaced.
Due to the paperwork and exchange of money, sometimes collectors only prioritize provenance for purchased works, but it is just as important to document information for gifted works. This is largely dependent on the individual gifting the object: provide all the relevant information about the piece so the collector can populate the provenance without confusion. Treat the artwork like it is being sold even if it isn’t.
Here are a few things to get started with your art documentation:
Description of the work (medium, materials used)
Inscriptions, distinct features (if the artist writes a note on the back, include a typed-up version of note)
Location (where was it made, where has it been stored/exhibited, where will it be stored/featured)
Condition (if there is any damage, state that even if it is minor. Each time the artwork moves, it should be inspected for any added damage. This will be crucial when the artwork, for example, travels to an institution to be exhibited)
Information about the artist (articles, exhibition essays, prizes, etc)
Receipts (helpful to also include documentation of correspondence with artist and/or dealer)
Auction information (if it was ever in the auction system; this is especially useful when researching how an artwork was valued and what grouping of auction items it was a part of)
You can keep track of this information on an inventory platform like Artwork Archive. Artwork Archive makes it easy for artists and art collectors to build their provenance records and record the story of their art.
You never know where an artwork will end up, but provenance helps to trace that journey
In November of 2022, Stair Galleries in Hudson, NY hosted an online auction of the late Californian writer Joan Didion’s estate.
Amongst the artworks included, the collection boasted names such as Annie Leibowitz, Richard Diebekorn, Patti Smith, Richard Serra, and Ed Ruscha.
One painted portrait of Didion was particularly alluring but little was known about the painter, Leslie Johnson, or how Didion knew him. The work had been gifted to her by him in 1977 and several photographs taken of her in the following years featured her sitting in front of the portrait in her home.
During the online auction, in which the painting hiked up in value with increasing bids, a friend and the brother of the artist emailed the auction house to share the artist’s life story and how much the painting had meant to him—Johnson had never met Didion but loved her books and painted the portrait based on the author photo on the back of her novel A Book of Common Prayer. When it was complete, Johnson passed it on to a friend who gave it to someone who knew Didion in hopes that she’d receive it.
Johnson passed away in 2002 but had spent decades wondering if Didion ever received the painting.
Predicted to sell for $3000-5000 at auction, the painting sold for $110,000 (more than any of the artworks in her estate), largely in part to this story—the provenance of the work.
[Photo courtesy of Stair Galleries and Restoration]
What is the future of provenance?
How do you play a part in the way the future will look at the past?
If you have a collection that matters to you, provide the reasons why through provenance work. While including all the details can feel tedious in the moment, the result is satisfying.
If the monetary value of your collection is of the utmost importance, thorough documentation will assist in appraisals and keeping track of shifting values.
Showing that you care about an artwork you own through thorough provenance documentation also increases the likelihood of the artist receiving more recognition, too.
And, do it to save future art detectives the headache of tracking down information that will be difficult and/or impossible to access in the future. Something you think only matters to you has the potential to matter to others down the road.
You can start building your provenance by recording your artwork on Artwork Archive. By recording the details about your artwork, you help ensure that your artwork is recorded into history. Try out Artwork Archive's free 14-day trial for artists to get started recording your legacy.