What is the Provenance of a Painting?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 April 2014
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The provenance of a painting is a history of its ownership. The term “provenance” is also used in reference to other works of art such as textiles, sculptures, and so forth. Provenance is of increasing importance in the art community because museums, galleries, and collectors wish to avoid handling looted art and wish to confirm that their art is genuine. Proper provenance research can take weeks, months, or even years and requires some very special skills.

Researching the provenance of a work of art fulfills several functions. One important function is confirming that the work of art is what it claims to be. When people look into the provenance of a painting, they want to confirm that the painting is created by the person associated with it. They can look for signs of forgery in the painting itself, and also in the painting's ownership history. Tipoffs can include records of “restoration” which might have been used to conceal forging activities, or long periods in which the painting was undocumented, making it difficult to determine if the painting someone is looking at is actually the original painting.


Provenance also provides important cultural and historical information. In the case of paintings which are hundreds of years old, the history of ownership can be an important part of understanding the painting and learning more about the painting's cultural role. Ownership histories can reveal the rise and fall of family and national fortunes as well as providing information about who was interested in the painting, why, and when.

The issue of looted art is an especially large concern in the art community. If it can be demonstrated that a work of art is legally owned and has never been illegally moved or transferred, it can fetch a much higher price. In a classic example of the problems with looted art, many works of art made their way to the United States from Europe in the 1930s and 1940s during the Nazi era. Some of these works of art were sold and transferred legitimately, but others were not, and art historians must sift through their documentation to determine whether or not paintings are legally owned.

When provenance for a work of art is determined, a certificate is attached to it. A painting with a certified provenance is more likely to be accepted for sale at auction or in a gallery, and the certificate can also add considerably to the value of a painting, especially if it was prepared by a noted art historian. With growing concerns about forgeries and looted art, some unscrupulous dealers have taken to forging the paperwork to make paintings seem legitimate in the eyes of collectors, museums, and other buyers, adding considerably to the difficulties involved in determining provenance.


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