What is the Importance of Provenance in Artwork?

Alessandro Levato | July 7, 2023

Detail of Composure, 60x72, Acrylic on Canvas, by AJ Oishi

Have you ever wondered about the story behind an artwork?

The history of the artwork can contribute to your decision to purchase a work, the value of the artwork, or even take part in major lawsuits. 

Court cases concerning high-profile artworks have seen a rise in disputes pertaining to provenance and authenticity as the price of art continues to skyrocket. This is due in part to developing technology that has made art forgeries easier. No one, especially an unknowing collector, wants to be liable for buying an expensive artwork that is actually not worth the said price.

Galleries work directly with artists and collectors, so the provenance is usually started through the initial transaction. However, the secondary market or resale market, including dealers and auction houses use provenance tracking to certify the artwork’s history of possession. 

A once sparse acknowledgment of artwork history is now an important factor while valuing art. Below, Artwork Archive has put together a guide for how you can both create provenance for your own artwork and how you can research works before purchase. 

Here are our top tips for how to both track the provenance of an artwork and find out the value of a potential artwork using provenance records. 


First, how does market value fit into this equation? 

Market value is the price that the art market deems the artwork worth. 

Factors that play a role in the market value of an artwork are the artist's name and influence, market trends, and provenance. Although provenance plays a larger role in authenticating the artwork, it can influence the market value if it was previously in a well-known collection or exhibition. 

All price fields (market value, price, purchase price, and insurance value) are in constant relation to each other and connected by the artwork's history and authenticity. It is always recommended to work with experts in the field to determine market value. 

Artwork Archive provides data documentation for all price fields that could pertain to the artwork in addition to provenance history and authenticity documentation.  You can see how those fields would look when inputting this data in Artwork Archive below. 


An example of the value fields on an artwork record in Artwork Archive for collectors. 


Why is provenance important to art collectors?

Who had this artwork before you?

Are you able to directly link the artwork to the artist?

Can your artwork’s provenance clearly provide documentation about authenticity?

These are major questions asked about high-profile artwork today. In addition to an enhanced market value, at one point in time, provenance records ensured a metaphorical stamp of authenticity within the art world. That is until certain dealers were found to be “improving artwork provenance." 

What does it mean to improve artwork provenance?

There are several types of artwork provenance that provide information about the history of an artwork. Anecdotal provenance refers to understanding the artwork's origin based on ownership claims without documented evidence. If these claims can be verified, they contribute to a more reliable record of the artwork's provenance.

The most reliable form of provenance is comprehensive documentation that includes invoices, gallery consignment reports, exhibition catalogs, certificates of authenticity from the artist or artist foundation, export licenses, or photographs that trace the artwork's history.

In a previous article discussing artwork forgery, we emphasized that a value appraisal does not serve as authentication for the artist or the era of the artwork. It's important for collectors to be aware that getting an artwork appraised and authenticated are separate processes. However, both factors significantly impact the value of the art.

An example of a provenance record on a Catalog Page in Artwork Archive.

As an art collector, how can you start tracking the provenance of your artwork?

Tracking the ownership history of artwork is essential, and there are various methods to doing this.

Artwork Archive provides collectors with powerful features that enable them to store and attach documentation to each artwork record. This allows you to gather and continuously update the provenance history of your artworks, ensuring that you capture even the most specific details.

With digital document storage, you can easily upload files pertaining to your entire art collection or individual artworks in a secure database. This means you can conveniently track and access the relevant provenance history documents whenever you need them. 

Not only does this increase the value of an artwork, but the detailed documentation provides a reference for historical tracking of additional artwork created by the artist. This, in turn, will help to further document an artist's life. 

Find out more about Artwork Archive provenance storage solutions here


What is the importance of a certificate of authenticity?

Certificates of Authenticity are documents that verify the authenticity of an artwork. These documents or notes accompany an artwork along with other verification such as an artist’s signature. COAs are mainly created by the artist or an artist’s estate to verify the originality of a work of art. 

Authenticating art through certificates of authenticity provides physical documentative value to an artwork. 

Tip: Find out how to create a certificate of authenticity on Artwork Archive here. 

An example of a Certificate of Authenticity on Artwork Archive. 

Do artist signatures count for anything?

It may seem like you don’t think that they have to verify the artwork if they are alive to approve the originality. However, proving authenticity and tracking provenance increases the value of the artwork and eliminates the risk for future disputes. 

Using an art inventory system or art database like Artwork Archive, artists and collectors can track signature notes and build provenance records. 

Additionally, a recent movement using AI and Blockchain technologies has started to encourage artists with verification technology that will automatically track their artworks’ provenance for future buyers. 

This is a simple, yet significant, way for artists today to start provenance tracking, and collectors can take part, too. 

In addition, there are new technologies that gather together past artists’ signatures to verify the handwriting of an unidentified signature. Through this, the art world has been able to both identify artworks and verify fakes.


Is the absence of accurate provenance records a risk for art collectors?

Previously, provenance disputes were rare, except in cases involving Nazi-era looted artwork. However, with advancements in technology, fake provenance records have become easier to identify.

To gain a different perspective, we explored the influence of provenance documentation or its absence on art authentication.

In legal terms, the concept of "mistake of fact" aims to return all parties to a pre-contract state. While this might seem desirable, it is often insufficient to protect both parties involved.

A notable example is the De Sole v. Knoedler, which began in 2004 when a provenance record for a famous Rothko painting was challenged and found to be connected to a fraudulent art dealer.

Under United States UCC laws, specifically Uniform Commercial Code Section 2-314, the title of merchant applies to any sale and therefore subjects the seller to UCC 2-313, which ensures that the goods (artwork) conform to the description. Consequently, auction houses and secondary market dealers typically refrain from providing authentication services to avoid potential liability.

However, many auction houses and dealers require extensive provenance history and purchase receipts when consigning artwork. Without this documentation, the artwork may not be considered for resale.

An invaluable resource for collecting provenance information on artworks and antiquities is The Getty Research Institute, which has developed the Getty Provenance Index.


Artwork documentation can build historical provenance. 

Digital databases have become increasingly influential in ongoing artwork provenance research.

Linking an artwork directly to the artist raises its value and increases art historical documentation. As blockchain has improved digital databases, various platforms are promoting the importance of documenting everything related to an artwork.

Artwork Archive provides multiple options to document and store data related to an artwork. Through this, collectors are able to view an organized picture of pieces in their collection. 

Digital documentation is so easily accessible, the art world is finally working towards building provenance documentation for continued historical reference. 

What is a collector's due diligence?

Research recommends that collectors request the artwork be authenticated before purchase by experts in the field. Collectors and buyers are held liable to perform due diligence or they may get tied up in a court case. 

Art collectors are also liable to have their art advisor verify the authenticity or provide documentation of research. This helps to catch sellers, who knowingly own fake artwork from selling fast in order to get liability off themselves. 

Hopefully, through prioritizing applicable documentation, the art world can have fewer forgeries and more authenticated artwork floating around. 

Learn more about how to get started with Artwork Archive and build your artwork's provenance below.

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