Provenance: Some Reflections

What is provenance?

Provenance tells you where an object "comes from", what its recent history is. Ideally provenance indicates the whole history of an object since it was discovered up to the present, including the exact location where it was found (for this also the term provenience is often used). However, it is hardly ever the case that such a precise provenance is available. Even major pieces in museums often lack these details. More often the word provenance is used to describe the history of recent ownership of an artefact.

Usually only the names of collections are included in the provenance and not the names of dealers or auction houses through which an object changed hands. But occasionally these are also mentioned, usually as additional proof that the object was on the market on the date of the sale, and sometimes also to add an important name to the object’s history (and thereby to its value).

Why is provenance important?

Provenance is important because (as long as it is documented) it is proof that an object has been in a collection, or a succession of collections, since a given year and therefore that it has left its country of origin in that year at the latest; in other words, it is proof that the artefact has not been recently looted or stolen.

Provenance (and the quality of the documents proving it) will also enhance the value of artefacts. Objects that have in the past been owned by collectors especially known for the quality of their collections (Leo Mildenberg, Axel Guttmann and many others) tend to be much more expensive. The same applies to items once owned by famous people (film stars, musicians, politicians), although there the price is often more determined by the desire for something that has belonged to a celebrity, and not necessarily by quality.

History of collecting

Antiquities have been collected ever since … antiquity. King Attalus I Soter of Pergamon (late 3rd century BC) is known to have collected works of art from all over the Hellenistic world, some of which he acquired by conquest or after negotiations; others he bought, sometimes for considerable amounts. And according to Marcus Valerius Martialis and Publius Papinius Statius (both first century CE) an otherwise obscure Roman called Novius Vindex possessed a statuette of Hercules Epitrapezios, made by Lysippus; we are informed that this statuette had previously belonged to Alexander the Great, to Hannibal and to Sulla. In other words, it had a provenance, relating it to celebrities from past centuries.

Ever since antiquity objects of art have been collected and especially during the so-called Grand Tour (17th-19th centuries) many objects from the ancient world were brought to western countries, where large collections were formed which have later been passed down through the generations and were eventually split up. The majority of what is on the market now consists of such pieces, coming from old collections.

Anonymous collections

Quite often the only provenance given for an object is just that: "old English (or German, French etc.) collection". Similarly one often sees things like: "collection H.P., Germany", with just initials. In the eyes of many this is no provenance at all, as it is not verifiable. However, the provenance of such pieces can be very sound; there can be several reasons why a collector does not want his full name to be published.

Reasons to keep it anonymous

Selling his collection in a liquidation sale, ordered by creditors, or due to bankruptcy is hardly something a victim would like to be divulged. Similarly the dispersion of an estate is something the heirs do not always want to be known (for emotional, financial or other reasons). But also if a collector is not forced to sell he may wish to remain anonymous. The wish for privacy can be the reason; perhaps this person does not want the world to know that he owns or owned valuable items (fear of burglary, fiscal reasons etc.). It also happens that people object against their name being used later (to enhance the value of what is being sold by others, or even to add a provenance (and thus credibility) to forged objects).

In many cases more provenance details are known than are being divulged. Auction houses, from which both knowledgeable collectors and dealers buy, do not always provide provenance information for reasons of confidentiality and discretion. The reasons for this can be the same as the ones mentioned above, but the outcome invariably is that the buyer doesn’t have the (full) provenance of his new acquisition, and therefore will be unable to pass it on when he wants to sell it again.

Also, when a dealer has bought at auction and gives the full provenance, anyone can find out the price he paid; especially dealers whose selling price includes a high mark-up may want to avoid this.

Sometimes surplus objects are de-accessioned by a museum. In that case the museum provenance would increase the value, but on the other hand it would also alert benefactors who donated objects to the museum in the belief that those objects would remain on public display forever.

In case a dealer buys directly from a collector, he may also want to protect his sources for business reasons: once a dealer has disclosed the name of a source to which only he has access, it can (and will) happen that others also contact this source in order to buy from it as well.

Dealers also sell to other dealers or consign objects to them; not seldom the objects in question are excess pieces that the first dealer cannot sell; in such cases the last dealer in the chain of ownership usually does not want to reveal his source either.

Paperwork lost

Besides, the attention for provenance is a recent phenomenon. Until recently many collectors bought artefacts because that was what they wanted; the rest – including the paperwork – was considered unimportant; as a result questions were not asked, paperwork was not always provided and if it was, it was not always retained. And even if the collector did retain everything, his heirs may not have done the same as they distributed the estate. The result of course is that a seller simply does not always have provenance information.

Paperwork found

Provenance details can also reappear; it has happened to me that I had bought a well provenanced object and later found out that the history of ownership went back a lot more than I had been told, and probably than had been known to the person from whom I had bought it. I discovered this by pure chance, leafing through an old auction catalogue for something else; suddenly I stumbled upon the very same object, this time with a provenance that went back in time for about a century more.

Provenance is not always proof

If we do have paperwork which goes back in time, we still do not always have absolute certainty that object and paperwork belong together. Nowadays most invoices are accompanied by a certificate of authenticity which contains a photograph of the object for identification purposes, but this was not done until fairly recently. Also, in old auction catalogues only the more expensive objects were illustrated. In other words, it is sometimes impossible to ascertain that the paperwork belongs to a certain object, especially if the description is short and in general terms, and the object is of a common type.

Forged provenance

Provenance is also often forged, just like antiquities themselves. The reasons for this can be many. Of course it is a way to add credibility to the authenticity of well made forgeries. More commonly it is done to cover up the fact that an authentic piece does not have any provenance, which can either mean that its presence in a collection for a long time was never recorded, or that it was recently looted.


There are hundreds of thousands of objects in existing collections for which (parts of) the provenance data are unknown, either because the records were not kept in the past or because at some point in time it was decided, for a good reason, to conceal information.

Some people insist that only objects should be sold that have a sound provenance; they are right for several reasons.

But then the question remains what will have to be done with all the legally obtained items with an undocumented provenance, once they come on the market. If they cannot be sold, what should one do with the artefacts? Putting them in a museum may not be the solution, because museums will only accept provenanced artefacts and may have a surplus of objects already, so that they will end up in storage. Returning things to the countries of origin may be a topic for discussion when it comes to very important pieces, but is hardly imaginable for the hundreds of thousands of unimportant objects that have no provenance; besides, the source countries usually have an overflow of such objects anyway, and returning everything would leave museums empty. So what to do with them then? Should we destroy them or throw them away? Hardly the solution.

And what if a collector has to sell part of his collection because he needs the money? It will be impossible for him to realise his assets because strictly speaking his objects are unsaleable when we follow the "not without provenance" rule.

One will just have to accept that sometimes there is no verifiable provenance. In such cases it is up to the dealer to judge his sources. Any responsible dealer will check what he can. If he considers his sources reliable and has no reason not to believe their story, he might decide to buy an object after all. Due diligence of course is very important here, but sometimes there are limits to what one can do. If for example somewhere in the past the object was bought through one of the major auction houses and they have printed the provenance up to that date in their catalogue, it is often impossible to go beyond this.

The result can be that a dealer offers an object for sale that has no or an incomplete provenance, or without supporting paperwork to prove it. All one has in such a case is the word of the dealer. Whether or not this dealer to be considered trustworthy will always remain a decision that only the potential buyer can take.


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