Unconventional Provenance: Documenting Art Ownership in the 21st Century

Artwork Archive | September 22, 2020 (Updated April 12, 2021)

Image courtesy of Artwork Archive
Courtney Ahlstrom Christy is the Principal Appraiser of Ahlstrom Appraisals LLC and Co-Editor of Worthwhile Magazine. During her years in the art business, Courtney has encountered many works with fascinating stories behind them, often enriched by well-documented provenance. 

Provenance can sound daunting and somewhat archaic. It wouldn’t be surprising if you envision dust settling atop of the word when it’s evoked.

Borrowed from the French for “origin,” provenance is the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art. It's critical to document a clear chain of object custody. Look no further than the antiquities market to see how a lack of recordkeeping can negatively impact an entire category in the art world.

In the 21st century we've seen new art materials and innovative artistic processes. We've also witnessed new methods of patroning, selling, distributing and enjoying art. As our (art) world continues to shift during the digital era, so does the documentation and records created alongside the art. 

So, let’s shake that imaginary debris off and reframe the way we think about gathering evidence for today’s modern collector.

The trick to assembling a strong provenance is the documentation of factual and reputable sources associated with the item.

Primary materials that were contemporary to an object’s journey are ideal, such as during the time of creation, a sales transaction, the transfer of inheritance, etc. These types of original sources function as first-hand accounts and speak on behalf of a work’s legacy.


But how do we bring the recordkeeping of art into the 21st century?

Like everything else these days, it’s all about going digital. But no need to worry, you don’t have to be a savvy techie or a member of Gen Z to gather digital documents. There is a multitude of ways to enhance your inventory with historical proof.

If you would like assistance (because life is busy enough as it is), then consider hiring a personal property appraiser or material culture archivist. These object-focused professionals routinely perform research and catalog services. 


Let’s break down the development of a modern provenance record into three elements: type, format, and image.

Type refers to the kind of content source, whether it is handwritten, printed, or digital. Evidence that may at first seem unconventional, especially when compared to centuries of traditional types of provenance, is really common sense. Let's compare the traditional ("Old School") types of provenance to the "New Wave" types. Anything surpise you from the list?

"Old School" provenance types

  • Handwritten and printed correspondence 
  • Labels and tags
  • Brochures and pamphlets
  • Inscriptions and dedications
  • Printed photographs and negatives
  • Original drawings and studies
  • Collector stamps 
  • Physical receipts and invoices
  • Inventory and lot numbers
  • Exhibition marketing materials
  • Publications illustrating the work
  • Old inventories
  • Conservation reports 
  • Wills and probate documents

“New Wave” provenance types

  • Email and text correspondence
  • Artist websites
  • Online gallery listings 
  • Social media posts like Instagram
  • Online auction catalog descriptions 
  • Video clips
  • Digital photographs
  • Emailed receipts and invoices 
  • Online press releases
  • Evites and e-newsletters
  • Virtual archives 
  • Audio recordings
  • SKU and QR codes
Enter and store your (scanned) traditional and (digital) contemporary provenance information easily in a database like Artwork Archive. 


Now that you have obtained various facts to support your object’s history, the next step is to convert these assorted types into a helpful format.

In this discussion, format means the digital copied version of the source material. By translating the information into a usable file, you can easily save these important details on a computer hard drive, flash drive, or cyber-secure database system like Artwork Archive (and yes, you can always print a hard copy). Scan, photograph, copy and paste, or screenshot your types and then save them as files in one of the following formats.

Formats for digital files 

  • Jpeg or Png (visual)
  • Pdf (visual or text)
  • Doc or Docx (mainly text)
  • Excel (spreadsheet)
  • Webm or Mpeg (video)
  • Wav or Mpeg (audio)
  • Zip file (compression of the data that can be extracted)

Subscribers to Artwork Archive can easily save these formats as attachments to an object's record. 


Create that zing of discovery for posterity by photographing your artwork today.

The visual power of images can be crucial when other means are unavailable. As an appraiser, I can tell you that there is a unique thrill when you discover an antique photograph showing the painting in question hanging over the fire mantel.

Using a camera or a smartphone, take photos of the overall view of the object as well as any special features and condition issues. While you’re at it, go the extra mile and photograph labels, signatures, markings, different views of the object (e.g., the back or underside), accompanying paperwork, or any aspect you think may be relevant. 

All of these images can be uploaded to your Artwork Archive account and assigned to both object and location records.


You, as a modern collector, can act as both steward and curator for your object’s provenance. 

Once you have all these bits and pieces of factual information, it’s time to create a cohesive narrative. Preferably in a single document, convey the story of an object’s history based on your evidence as best you can. Describe phases of ownership, exhibition pedigree, past known sales, listed publications/posts, and means of acquisition.

The curious thing about the evidence needed to establish provenance is that they are often forms of ephemera. Like their paper cousins, online ephemera is just as transient and perhaps even more fleeting. Make sure you acquire a version of this data and put it into a document of your own creation rather than thinking you can retrieve it later. A website or social media account can quickly disappear into the internet ether, never to be seen again. So, grab your “format” net and capture those butterfly “types” before they fly away. 

Have a collection of contemporary art? Then read “Provenance Now: Documenting Your Contemporary Art” online for free at Worthwhile Magazine.

Image courtesy of Artwork Archive


Last few words of advice on collecting provenance—both traditional and contemporary

  • Do you own any original primary sources, like letters and drawings? Keep the originals after scanning them into a system like Artwork Archive. Make sure to store them safely and securely.

  • Issues of legal ownership can arise when conducting provenance research. Perform due diligence and check registries that track of stolen and missing works such as The Art Loss Register and the FBI’s National Stolen Art File.

  • If you are contemplating buying a work of art, investigate its provenance before purchase to the best of your ability. If the seller mentions specific ownership history, request verifiable proof. 

  • If you buy artwork from a retailer or auction house, see if they will share their inventory number. While it may be of little significance to you now, it could be valuable to future verification. It is often instrumental when reviewing old auction listings to have both the sale and lot numbers from a specific venue. Many reputable galleries donate their business papers to special collections at libraries and universities. Imagine if that number you noted years ago will be corroborated in the archives! 

  • If a work is by a listed artist, always remember to check and see if there is a catalogue raisonné. The New York Public Library defines catalogue raisonné as “a comprehensive, annotated listing of all the known works of an artist either in a particular medium or all media.”

  • Don’t forget to cite your sources when possible. Describe the origin of the material, including its initial format, date, author, owner, etc. For example, “this label along the back stretcher came from XYZ gallery in Paris” or “copied here is a handwritten letter from the artist to my aunt Maisie Wardley in 1952.”  You can entert his information in your Artwork Archive's Notes section—a fully searchable field.

  • Did you personally acquire the work? Record your memory of buying the piece as soon as possible. While you may think you’ll remember the event clearly, minor details often become foggy to recall. It doesn’t need to be a long description or formal in tone, just as long as it has been written down. 


Want to learn more about provenance? Check out these articles on the importance of and types of provenance.


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