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What is the Provenance of a Painting?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Jul 09, 2014

@pleonasm - On the other hand, it generally means that a work of art has only belonged to very few people and has probably not been seen by the public, unless the artist was already famous when he or she finished the work.

Provenance research can be difficult when a painting has moved around, but at least that means it has been considered valuable and hopefully seen by a lot of people.

By pleonasm — On Jul 08, 2014

@Iluviaporos - Actually, they recently did some research on the painting and now think that it was never cut down in size. I think the Provenance of the Mona Lisa is fairly well documented, but they still don't know everything about it. Even, for instance, when it was completed. But it is a very old painting.

Honestly, I would almost prefer a painting to have a very simple provenance because it means it is unlikely to have been harmed by improper storage or being moved around too much.

By lluviaporos — On Jul 08, 2014

A provenance can be very interesting. In some cases, I'd say it's the most interesting part of a painting. When you consider that art is often moved around during wars, or exchanged in extreme circumstances, you realize that many paintings have a story to tell.

The painting itself might have been changed by ownership. There is a theory that the Mona Lisa, for example, was once larger, but some of the edges were cut off by an owner.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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