Provenance: What Is It and Why Should It Matter to You?

Artwork Archive | October 31, 2016

Have you ever dreamed about toting a quirky garage-sale find onto Antiques Roadshow and learning it's worth a fortune?

"I found this painting in the attic and just loved the frame," you say, as the appraiser’s mouth falls open.

Everyone watching your Antiques Roadshow triumph is asking themselves the same question, “How did this piece come to live in that attic?”

The long answer to that question is known as provenance.

The word provenance is derived from the French word provenir, meaning “to come from”. An ideal provenance captures the ownership history of a piece all the way back to the artist's studio.

Verified provenance can prove the authenticity of a piece and greatly increase its value.

Since art has been collectible for thousands of years, determining where a piece comes from is often a complex work of historical study and documentation.

Provenance establishes an item's collectible significance beyond what it would otherwise appear to have. A piece with interesting provenance might tell a story of fortunes made and lost, famous owners, and remarkable epochs in history. Sometimes the provenance of a piece can be just as interesting as the piece itself!

Provenance was once seen as a nearly infallible way to verify the authenticity of a piece.

However, even this careful process can be faked by those knowledgeable enough. In our collector's reading list, we feature a book called Provenance that examines how two people were able to sell forged art at the highest levels. Their documentation for the inauthentic pieces they sold was so expertly faked that more obvious flaws in the pieces themselves were overlooked.

This cautionary tale showcases the true importance of provenance.

Just as flawed forgeries can sell for millions due to well-faked supporting documents, the value of authentic pieces can be undermined by careless documentation.

If you're interested in acquiring a new piece, make sure to carefully review and document its provenance with the help of an expert.

If these documents are lost, re-establishing provenance can be nearly impossible—so consider keeping them in a safety deposit box. Or better yet, store digital copies of these documents and access them anywhere using Artwork Archive’s tools for art collectors.

Learn more about provenance, along with other art collection requirements in the Essential Guide to Collecting Art.   

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