Art Term Tuesday: Provenance

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

The first time I heard the word “provenance” was in an episode of Supernatural in high school. A television show about two brothers, Sam and Dean, who kill various paranormal entities, it’s not, perhaps, the place one would have imagined to come across a new art term. In Season One (Episode 19: “Provenance”, for those of you who are interested) the brothers investigate a haunted family portrait that is killing the people who purchase it. Finding the painting in an auction house, Sam asks to “see the provenances” after describing the Merchant family portrait as “more Grant Wood than Grandma Moses”. He explains to his brother, “It’s a certificate of origin, like a biography. We can use them to track the history of the piece, see if anything’s got a freaky past”. I won’t spoil the ending, but the provenances show that this painting does indeed have a freaky past. Do museums consider the past of the artworks and antiquities they acquire for their permanent collection?

A painted portrait of the Hanna Family, they are gathered around a large oak table. The father and mother are seated on the right-hand side, the mother with a baby in her lap. The seven other children are dispersed around the table, with one son sitting at the table and reading. All of the children are different ages, and all of them are boys.
The provenance of a portrait like the Hanna Family can provide us with important information on both the artist and the family, for example, the book on the table tells us the family is wealthy. Horace Rockwell, American. Samuel Hanna Family. Oil on canvas, 1843. Gift of the Hanna Family Heirs. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Yes, the provenance of an object as a record of ownership is used to authenticate a piece through the chronology of disparate pieces of information. No museum wants a fake in their collection, whether it’s a historic suit of armour or an early Van Gogh. From the French Provenir, “to come from”, the provenance provides contextual and circumstantial evidence that establishes a timeline of ownership and use. Without it, an artwork’s authenticity, and thus its value, comes into question. A work of art with a shady past may not be collected by a museum because they cannot confirm its legitimacy. What’s more, the provenance establishes the moral and legal validity of a piece, ensuring it is not, for example, a looted antiquity. The provenience is a term in archaeology to refer to the location where an artifact was found, which can also help to confirm its validity. An ancient Grecian urn found in America, for example, would be an anomaly and would immediately raise suspicions on its authenticity while one found closer to home may point to ancient trading routes. An artifact can have both a provenience and provenance, but artworks tend to have just a provenance as they aren’t usually “found” but bought or given. Establishing a chain of custody proves the piece wasn’t stolen, acquired on a black market, forged, looted, or otherwise illegally obtained and resold. No museum wants to buy an artwork that is forged, or collected under questionable circumstances.

Many notable museums “acquired” art by simply taking it for themselves in areas they colonised or inhabited during wartime; today, many museums are working towards restitution of looted pieces or including text that owns up to the way in which these works were acquired. As a predominantly contemporary art museum, establishing provenance is much simpler because often the artists are still living. If we purchase the work directly from the artist or their gallery, then we are the first in the chain of custody. This means, however, that it is then our job to maintain and update the provenance. Conversely, once an artist has passed and the older the piece is, the more important the provenance becomes; but, the harder it is to produce. Information that makes up the provenance of an artwork is varied and can include: artist information; the medium and dimensions of the work; the artist signature; the title; style or movement; frame; auction records; and the information on the back of a painting like signatures, dates, exhibition marks, dealer stamps, and gallery labels. Other indications of previous ownership such as shipping labels, bills of sale, historic photographs, newspaper or magazine articles, wills, and donation receipts are also included. Listed in chronological order, beginning with the artist and date of execution, the provenance works its way up to the present and can also include records from auction houses, dealers, galleries, private or institutional collections, and exhibitions. Any place the artwork is mentioned helps fill in the gaps of where it was before; it is rare to have a complete provenance of an item, especially for works hundreds of years old. Papers get misplaced or ruined and artworks disappear into attics or private collections, looted or destroyed in war.

A group of school children stand in front of a painting, led in discussion by their docent.
Last year, FWMoA put on a four gallery exhibition of Julian Stanczak paintings and Barbara Stanczak’s sculptures. We don’t own these works, but their inclusion in our exhibition will end up in their provenance! Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

If provenances are just pieces of paper, can’t they, too, be faked? Yes. Unfortunately, the ownership and history of the painting can be forged just as easily as the painting itself. Just as collectors have their artworks authenticated, they can also authenticate a provenance. If the painting is extremely old but the provenance is in full, that could be a red flag that something isn’t right. A provenance can vary greatly in length depending on how much is known, from a single name to multiple pages. The age and type of paper can also determine if the provenance is fake. Why go to all this trouble? The provenance is the history of the painting, and the history helps to show that it is the genuine thing, or the “real deal”. Not only does a provenance resolve possible ownership disputes and help prove it is not a forgery, reproduction, or piece of stolen or looted art; it indicates the value of the work. The provenance confirms the date, artist, and, especially for the Supernatural portrait, the subject of the paintings. It can also vouch for the style of painting, placing it in the period it dates from and further dispelling questions of forgery and fraud. The paper trail is integral to ensuring a museum is fairly purchasing a real artwork from the true seller at fair market price.    

Nowadays, many provenances are digitised. At FWMoA, we have a database that tracks all the information we have on a work, which we can print out for our use or for research. If you buy a piece of artwork, whether new or old, you should receive the records, or provenance. Like a family history, the provenance places each individual artwork on the art history timeline and, in the case of Supernatural, ensures we know what to do if our artworks come to life and haunt us.

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