Why Provenance Matters to Art Collectors – Artsy | Candle Made Easy

art market

Brian Ng

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s recent raid on the Orlando Museum of Art demonstrated the power of provenance, or a record of an artwork’s ownership history: According to the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant, the provenance stories of 25 Jean-Michel Basquiat works are , which were also not authenticated by his estate, did not check out.

Provenance, when done well, is an important part of ensuring works are authentic. In some cases—as with anything hundreds of years old or older—giving it that metaphorical cachet can be a compelling way.

What is provenance?

Provenance can consist of a range of documents – from historical invoices to sales between owners and galleries, to documentation in exhibition catalogues, to pictures of the art in people’s homes or photos of the work with the artist and previous owners.

“It’s the foundation of trust in the art market,” said Max Kendrick, co-founder of Fairchain, a blockchain-based provenance service, in an interview with Artsy.

Can origin be faked?

“Of course anything is possible,” said Paris gallery owner Almine Rech when asked about forged provenances, “but it’s difficult.” She said there’s usually an entry for a work—even an unfinished one—somewhere in a catalogue it from a commercial gallery, institution or catalog raisonné whether it is finished or not. Especially for works from the 20th century onwards, she said, there’s a good chance there’s paperwork to prove where the work was located.

While well-known artists are more likely to have provenance forged (like Basquiat), their works have been well documented for years and the number of works that have not been seen by an authenticating authority, be it the artist or his estate, is slim. With lesser-known artists, Rech said, not many people would be interested in forging provenances.

Provenance not only helps to avoid counterfeiting

Now more than ever, before purchasing a work, it is more important to make sure that it has been legally acquired. For years, the Nigerian government has been trying to bring back the so-called “Benin Bronzes” after the works were looted in the late 19th century, primarily by British forces, and eventually found their way into many institutional collections.

Some museums in Germany, Scotland and the US have investigated where their works come from and have either sent certain works back to Nigeria or announced they will send them. The University of Aberdeen, for example, consulted its records and found that its 1957 auctioned sculpture of an Oba (king) had been “acquired in … reprehensible circumstances,” as George Boyne of the university put it. The university brought the work back to Nigeria in a repatriation ceremony last fall.

In recent history, artworks stolen during World War II, particularly by the Nazis, have made provenance crucial to the heirs of families who formerly owned them. One of the most famous cases is that of Maria Altmann, who sued the Austrian government under the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The Supreme Court ruled in her favor and let her case against the Republic of Austria continue, where she went to arbitration to reclaim several works by Gustav Klimt that her uncle left her before the Nazis stole them, and they eventually found hers Way to the Austrian state museums.

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, one of the Nazi looted works finally got back to Maria Altmann. Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York.

In this and the various cases since, documents such as old photos of family homes or letters from distant relatives have been used to determine who the real owners are, even if works have made it into institutions half a century later. These types of problems continue to plague the art market, particularly looting during recent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.

What collectors have to pay attention to when it comes to provenance

“People don’t realize that provenance is an issue when you buy a work in the primary market,” Kendrick said. They only think about it decades later or when the original collectors die and their next of kin have to find out, not just as a financial matter but as a sentimental one as well. Collectors now know “what’s good to keep,” Rech said, but “collectors have to collect their own provenance.”

In the secondary market, collectors should look for a dossier with enough documentation to track the whereabouts of the works – both their owners and their showings. All of them should be checked by experts. “If there are too many doubts,” Rech said, “it’s better not to buy the work.”

Another aspect of provenance to keep in mind: it can have a significant impact on a work’s price. “If there’s not enough provenance,” Rech said, “they can’t authenticate a work,” whether it’s from an artist’s estate or from a potential buyer, which can affect the resale price. But then again, when a work has an impressive history – for example notable previous owners or inclusion in landmark exhibitions – its price can go up.

Provenance in the blockchain age

Traditional ways of establishing provenance remain central to collectors, but a paper-based system can be unreliable, and digital documentation can also be falsified. “Technology is now well-armed to solve this origin problem,” said Fairchain co-founder Charlie Jarvis.

Several companies, including Fairchain, Tagsmart, and Codex, help artists and galleries create digital certificates tied to artworks. These certificates are backed by blockchain technology, which means that any change – such as a change of ownership or an artist issuing their certification of authenticity – cannot be changed once entered. The technology itself is a cheap solution. A digital directory of an artist’s works also creates a de facto catalog raisonné and thus strengthens the provenance of the artworks.

At a time when more and more sales are taking place online – especially during the lockdowns at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – the issue of trust has become much more important. With products like the digital certificates, potential buyers can not only be sure that the works they have collected are authentic, but that they were purchased from the actual owner. In a world where reliable provenance is possible, hopefully fewer art scandals will be processed in Netflix documentaries.

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