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  • Art Provenance: What It Is and How to Verify It



    At any point in a work of art's history, it's authenticity can come into question. Often, art is accompanied by documentation, commonly known as provenance, that confirms its authenticity. Good provenance leaves no doubt that a work of art is genuine and by the artist whose signature it bears. Unfortunately, numerous forged or otherwise misrepresented works of art are offered for sale with fake or questionable provenance at online auctions like eBay, at fixed-price art websites and at bricks-and-mortar establishments, but nowhere is the proliferation of problem art and problem provenance more pervasive than at online auctions.

    In order to fool inexperienced buyers, unscrupulous sellers often state that they have provenance or documented ownership histories that they claim confirms the authenticity of their bogus art. In some cases, this concocted provenance appears to date all the way back to the artists themselves. Before bidding on or buying the art, your job is to make sure that any such provenance is correct, legitimate, verifiable and does in fact attest to the authorship of the art. (Problem art may also be accompanied by certificates of authenticity. To evaluate a certificate of authenticity or COA, read Is Your Certificate of Authenticity Worth the Paper It's Printed On?)

    Provenance can take many forms:

    A signed certificate or statement of authenticity from a respected authority or expert on the artist.

    An exhibition or gallery sticker attached to the art.

    A statement, either verbal or written, from the artist.

    An original gallery sales receipt or receipt directly from the artist.

    A film or recording of the artist talking about the art.

    An appraisal from a recognized authority or expert on the artist.

    Names of previous owners of the art.

    Letters or papers from recognized experts or authorities discussing the art.

    Newspaper or magazine articles mentioning or illustrating the art.

    A mention or illustration of the art in a book or exhibit catalog.

    Verbal information related by someone familiar with the art or who knows the artist and who is qualified to speak authoritatively about the art.

    Good provenance almost always increases the value and desirability of a work of art because, first and foremost, it authenticates the art. Good provenance also provides important information about and insight into a work of art's history. Unscrupulous sellers know the value of provenance and often go to great lengths to manufacture or fabricate phony provenance for their art. The good news is that phony provenance is relatively easy to detect in most cases. The following guidelines will help protect you from buying art with fake or questionable provenance:

    * NUMBER ONE: NEVER BID ON OR BUY ART WITHOUT SEEING THE PROVENANCE FIRST. Sellers may say they have provenance, but will only show or give it to winning bidders or buyers after they purchase the art. Other common excuses for not showing provenance include protecting the privacy of the previous owners or keeping bidders from contacting previous owners. In most cases, the real reason for not showing the provenance is that it's questionable in nature. If you can't see it, don't bid and don't buy. Period.

    * Provenance must specifically describe the piece of art that's being offered for sale in order to be valid including dimensions, medium, date of creation (if known), title (if known), and other relevant details. Documents that do not specifically describe the piece of art in question do not constitute valid provenance.

    * Photocopies of letters, certificates, and other documents are not valid forms of provenance (unless the originals are at a known location, and can be accessed and inspected firsthand). Documentation must be hand-signed, hand-stamped or otherwise marked by hand regardless of whether it's digitally printed, hand-typed or handwritten.

    * All signatures on documentation must be identifiable, and contact information for all signers must be included somewhere in the provenance-- and verifiable.

    * Provenance is fact, not supposition. Statements that a particular work of art looks similar to other works of art by the artist are not provenance (unless they're made by nationally or internationally respected and credentialled authorities on the artist and can be documented as such).

    * Get full names and contact information for all private parties who the seller claims previously owned the art. Confirm that these people actually exist (or existed) and, if possible, contact them or their descendants directly to confirm all claims. Simply being given a list of names with no other accompanying information is not enough.

    * Names of previous owners do not constitute valid provenance unless they provide concrete and irrefutable proof that the work of art in question is by the artist who the seller says it is by. For example, if an individual is listed as being the owner of the particular work of art in question in a museum exhibit catalog about the artist, this would constitute valid provenance.

    * Get full names and contact information for all galleries or auction houses that the seller claims previously owned the art. If these galleries are still in business, contact them in order to confirm that the information provided by the seller is correct. If none of the galleries or auction houses are traceable, then this may be cause for concern.

    * Names of galleries that previously owned the art do not constitute valid provenance unless they are known and respected authorities on the artist, or can provide concrete and irrefutable proof that the art is by the artist.

    * If the seller states that the work of art sold at an auction house, have them provide the name and contact information for the auction house as well as the date of the sale and lot number of the art. Just because an auction house sells a work of art does not automatically make that work of art genuine. Best procedure here is to get a copy of the auction catalog and read the listing for the art.

    * An illustration of the art taken from an old auction catalog without the accompanying description does not constitute valid provenance unless the auction house is or was able to demonstrate beyond doubt that the art was by the artist in question. For example, the auction house may have sold it as "attributed" to the artist. Again, get a copy of the auction catalog and read the full listing to see how the art was represented.

    * All statements sellers make about who owned the art or where it came from must be verified. Conditional or third party statements like "this art is believed to have been owned by..." or "the person I got it from told me..." or "the estate that this came from had lots of important art..." do not constitute valid provenance.

    * An appraisal for the art does not constitute valid provenance unless it has been performed by a respected expert or authority on the artist, and states that the art is absolutely by the artist. If you have any questions about an appraisal, contact the appraiser before bidding on the art and verify that appraiser's qualifications to make any statements of authenticity contained within the appraisal. Any appraiser making statements of authenticity would also have to be a nationally or internationally respected authority on the artist in question. When you can't verify the appraiser's credentials or contact the appraiser or the appraisal does not include adequate contact information for the appraiser, be very careful. Best procedure would be not to bid on or buy the art. (FYI, an appraisal normally assumes the art is genuine and has statements or disclaimers to that effect; it is not in and of itself an authentication of the art. In other words, you need a separate authentication or provenance to go along with such an appraisal.)

    * When a seller states that a work of art is "attributed to" a particular artist, get the name of the person who did the attributing. If that person is not an established and respected expert on the artist, then the attribution is meaningless. Furthermore, an attribution, no matter who makes it, does not constitute valid provenance.

    * If you have any questions whatsoever about the provenance of a work of art that you're thinking about buying, contact an independent expert, dealer, consultant, or appraiser BEFORE YOU BID. After you buy the art may be too late.

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