Filling in the Blanks: How Provenance Researchers Solve the Art Market’s Complex Puzzles

Jan 17, 2019

What is provenance research and why is it important?

Highly desirable works of art are often described as having “impeccable provenance,” but what exactly does that mean?

Imagine being able to trace an uninterrupted line from a work of art’s current owner back to the artist’s studio, knowing every place the work has ever been exhibited, the date and location of every sale and the identity of every previous owner along the way.

When you think about all of the events that would occur over, say, a 400-year-old Old Master painting’s lifetime – war, natural disaster, political and economic unrest – it becomes clear that all of this information, collectively known as provenance, could easily become mixed up, lost, destroyed or falsified. Even works of modern and contemporary art often have remarkably complicated histories.

To say that a work of art has “impeccable provenance” implies rarity. In the art market, rarity translates to value. A collector who wants to sell a piece for top dollar needs to have proper documentation of its history. A savvy buyer will require it for purchase and it may need to be presented for various insurance, legal or financial reasons.

Mary Buschman, President of ARIS Title Insurance Corporation said, “We ask the applicants to provide as much information as they know about the art or collectible. If they do not presently have a full provenance, our team begins to underwrite based on the information provided. ”

Outside the commercial market, museums and large collections also have a vested interest in the provenance of their works. They may require bibliographic or biographic information for exhibitions and publications. It is also necessary to ensure that the works have not been stolen or looted at any point in history, as this may result in liability for a restitution or title claim.

“An incomplete or inaccurate provenance raises the risk of a future ownership dispute against the art or collectible. For example, a gap in provenance of an artwork during World War II is taken as a sign that the artwork may have been acquired illegally and has questionable legal title. An innocent buyer can lose a piece of art or collectible and the money paid for it if someone makes a successful title claim,” Buschman said.

What are the benefits of hiring a professional provenance researcher?

Companies like Provenance Research Associates, founded by Casie Kesterson and Patricia Teter-Schneider in 2009, undertake the complicated task for individual collectors and institutions. They said that no two projects are alike and that the process for researching even two works by the same artist can require a vastly different approach. At its base, each project requires access or connections to the world’s top libraries and archives, as well as some good, old-fashioned detective work. An experienced provenance researcher knows where to look and how to find missing information, but may still struggle against the ravages of time.

“Ideally, we attempt to provide a complete listing of the ownership history of a work of art, but some gaps are easier to provide than others,” Teter-Schneider said. “We warn our clients that sometimes there are no definitive answers to some of their questions. On occasion, full provenance documentation simply no longer exists, due to the loss or destruction of documents. There are, however, other ways to prove previous ownership – exhibition records, newspapers, letters, city and country records, etc. Therefore, some creativity greatly helps in our research and thinking process.”

This kind of creativity is also required from other professionals in the art market who rely on provenance research. According to Buschman, ARIS Title Insurance Corporation uses provenance research as the “jumping-off point” for research on title risk. The company’s underwriters go beyond confirming the accuracy of the information provided by seeking to uncover gaps in information and risks that might not have been identified at first glance. She said, “No provenance or chain of title is perfect and even a complete provenance can never fully eliminate legal exposure. Provenance tracks physical possession or location from the day the work was created until the present, but does not account for concealed legal title defects, particularly since both sides of every art transaction are never fully recorded.”

Provenance researchers work for many years to become familiar with all of the resources available and learn proper techniques. There are many pitfalls to avoid. As an example, Teter-Schneider highlighted a common problem, “Often provenance histories related to copies have been mistakenly included in the original paintings’ histories, thereby confusing the histories for both [the original and the copies] for decades, or even centuries.”

Kesterson added, “Having been in this business for over several decades, we know from experience that we can never completely rely on previous or older research. Information can be wrongly transcribed, and likewise new documentation is discovered daily.”

How has the provenance research process changed in recent years?

Kesterson and Teter-Schneider say that provenance research has become increasingly important since the Washington Principles were established in 1998 to assist in resolving issues related to Nazi-confiscated art. Many European nations, including Austria and Germany, made immediate efforts to return countless treasures that were seized during WWII, but there continue to be newsworthy scandals as new troves are discovered and new claims are made by survivors and their relations.

This has lead to demand for more thorough research and a need for more accessible resources. One significant change has been the digitization of records. Kesterson said, “Many World War II documents covering 1930s and 1940s art looting have now been digitized, along with a great many auction sale records, which has been incredibly helpful to at least highlight potential problems with past and current owners.”

However, this digitization has not been exhaustive and Kesterson said, “We still rely on a significant amount of material in archives and private hands that is not digitized (and for various reasons, may never be), and which requires travel and/or queries from afar.”

Another major change to the field of provenance research has been the need to supplement with additional methods of investigation. Buschman said, “Historically, the art industry authenticated works primarily on provenance, but now that the industry is aware that provenance can be forged or fake, there is greater incentive to thoroughly research provenance and chain of ownership.”

Companies like Diagnostics and Research in Art AG - DRiART offer high-quality, objective, non-invasive and invasive scientific analysis of artworks to document the materials and techniques used by the artist. This information can have various applications, including the support of or supplement to provenance research findings.

Stefan Cemicky, CEO of DRiART said, “Even artworks with excellent provenance and attribution need at least a basic technical examination, for several reasons. First, to match the provenance to the physical object in question. There have been cases when the documentation was impeccable, but the work of art itself was not the one mentioned in the documentation!”

Additionally, certain elements of an artwork may not be visible to the naked eye. A technical examination provides an overview of materials used, past conservation interventions and current condition. It also might reveal additional, hidden aspects of the piece, such as underdrawings and abandoned compositions or distinguishing features like a collection stamp, which can help to identify or fill in the missing pieces of an artwork’s history.

Aside from the now obvious angles of value and due diligence, what other reasons might someone have for researching the provenance of an artwork?

Owning such a tangible link to history is one of the inestimable joys of being an art collector. Some seem to enjoy the discoveries of provenance research almost purely for the sake of sated curiosity. Additionally, each new finding furthers the study of the history of collecting, patronage and art and auction trends over time, as well as our collective understanding of art history.

Though provenance research is rooted in the past, professionals in the field look to innovation and change, in anticipation for a bright future.

Kesterson said, “I think the art market will be significantly transformed by technology, for better and for worse. The optimist in me thinks that one of the great benefits will be accessibility. And the more people interact with art, the better.”

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