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date: 18 October 2019


  • Michael Jaffé

Term used for the history of ownership of movable works of art. A complete provenance provides an accurate account of the locations and changes in the chain of ownership of a work of art from the time and place of its manufacture to the present. The more extensive this record is, the more secure the attribution of the work is likely to be. An accurate and verifiable provenance may also be critical in establishing the rightful ownership of a work of art.

It is important to document an object’s provenance for legal, ethical, and scholarly reasons. A deliberately falsified provenance may accompany a work of art that is either inauthentic or legally encumbered, as is often the case with illicitly excavated artefacts and smuggled works of art. Inaccurate provenance information may also be the result of human error, for example, when the histories of two visually similar works of art are confused. For instance, in 1993 a studio version of Anthony van Dyck’s three-quarter-length portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria in a Yellow Silk Dress was offered to the National Portrait Gallery in London and to the British Royal Collection by the agent of ‘a Venetian nobleman’, accompanied by a provenance that, in fact, belonged to the original version (New York, Met.). Occasionally, an eager scholar or owner (sometimes the same person) chooses to identify a work with the description of an item in a document that it does not truly match. Mismatches and inaccuracies can be the result of wishful thinking rather than an intention to deceive, but they nevertheless must be corrected in order to understand the object’s place in the history of art and collecting. The absence of provenance information can raise questions about not only ownership and authenticity but also the original context and function of the work of art. For example, the Cloisters Cross (New York, Cloisters) was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1963 without any provenance. Since that time, the cross, widely believed to be English (and sometimes referred to as the Bury St Edmunds Cross), has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly enquiry as to its authorship, origins, and iconographic meaning.

Antioch Cup (or Antioch Chalice), silver, silver-gilt, 7 1/2 x 5 7/8 in. (19 x 15 cm), first half of the 6th century AD (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection, 1950, Accession ID: 50.4); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The study of provenance can reveal insights into the history of taste: not only what was collected but also what collectors wished to own. The Antioch Cup (New York, Cloisters) has long been identified as the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, despite scholarship suggesting that it dates to the 6th century. Richard Cosway owned and venerated the oak box (England, priv. col.) believed by him—perhaps correctly—to be the box in which Rubens kept his colours. Marble reliefs from the collection of the Pembroke family (Wilton House, Wilts) are traditionally reputed to have come from the collection of Cardinal Mazarin, first minister to Louis XIV. The legends that are attached to these objects may betray the aspirations of their owners rather than the history of the objects themselves.

1. Provenance research methods and resources.

Tracing the history of a work of art is most reliably achieved by using primary sources that record the item, such as inventories, wills, appraisals and financial documents, records of sales, correspondence, and photographic or other visual evidence. Archival holdings may thus be the best, though by no means the only, resource for provenance research. Tracking an object’s public exhibition and sales history through published catalogues can also document ownership over the years. Literature on collectors and collecting, and contemporaneous accounts by visitors to both public and private art collections—for example, Gustav Friedrich Waagen’s descriptions of collections in 19th-century Great Britain—are also particularly helpful in demonstrating the previous ownership of an object. Reproductive prints, sketches, and artists’ renderings of collections are another way to establish provenance, from David Teniers’s Theatrum Pictoricum (1660), an illustrated catalogue of engravings of the 243 paintings belonging to Habsburg, House of family, §I, (18), Archduke of Austria, to the numerous prints and drawings done after the antique sculptures in the Ludovisi gardens in Rome.

The material evidence on a work of art can be important in tracing its provenance. Physically attaching marks of ownership to particular works of art has been a standard practice in China for centuries. In Europe, doing so became a regular practice only in the 17th century (Vasari’s decorative mounts in his Libro de’ disegni were the great 16th-century exception). The Barberini family in Rome and the Marqués de Carpio in Naples numbered their canvases in white digits on the painted surfaces. Pictures that belonged to Charles I in London were branded in black paint on the backs, while bronzes from the collection of Louis XIV were incised underneath with royal inventory numbers. Cassiano dal Pozzo wrote on the backs of his pictures. To the present day, marks and labels added to an object by collectors, art dealers, auction houses, museums, and customs and export control officials all help track the movements of a work of art over time.

Innumerable drawings and prints bear some distinguishing mark or inscription indicating previous ownership (see Marks, §5). Lanier, Nicholas, a collector of drawings for Charles I and for Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, marked drawings that were in his own collection with stars of various sizes. The Hon. Roger North, executor of Sir Peter Lely’s will, had an ink stamp made with the monogram ‘p.l.’, which he used to systematically mark ‘every paper’ in Lely’s studio, including those on which Lely himself had sketched (see Lely, Sir Peter, §3). This practice was followed by Lely’s assistant Lankrink, Prosper Henry and, in due course, by those thousands of artists and collectors listed by Frits Lugt in his pioneering reference book of collectors’ marks, Les Marques de collections de dessins et d’estampes (Amsterdam, 1921). Rubens, whom Lely and Lankrink so much admired by imitation, can be traced as a collector by the inscription ‘by p.p. rvbens’ that appears on at least four drawings by Michelangelo that he once owned (all Albertina, Vienna) and by scores of drawings by other Italian or northern masters that he repaired, retouched, or virtually reworked.

Picture frames may also provide further clues. Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ in the Garden (1602; Dublin, N.G.), sold in 1802 to William Hamilton Nisbet (1747–1822), was given a frame and a label distinctly similar to those of other paintings he had acquired in Rome. The fact that Augustus the Strong of Saxony had all the paintings in the Zwinger palace in Dresden reframed, in order to display them in a uniform format of patterns and gilding, allowed Christie’s auction house in the 20th century to identify a picture that had been offered to them as coming from Dresden; in fact, the painting in question had been looted from the Dresden Gallery. Since many paintings have been reframed more than once, however, care must be taken when analysing the evidence found on framing elements. Marks, labels, and other visual clues could refer to a painting that the frame no longer houses.

2. Provenance and authenticity.

Works of art that are deliberately forged, or are otherwise inauthentic, are often accompanied by a fanciful provenance (see also Forgery). Documents, photographs, and even marks of ownership purportedly proving history of ownership may thus also be falsified. In the 1990s art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi (b 1951) sold his paintings stating that they came from a fictional German collection, the Jägers collection. To support his story, he forged gallery and exhibition labels and affixed them to the backs of the canvases. Beltracchi went so far as to stage historical photographs of his paintings as they would have appeared in 20th-century German homes in an attempt to demonstrate their authenticity.

The self-confessed forger Eric Hebborn (1934–96) claimed to have used the mark of Hone family, §1 on a drawing attributed by Christie’s (13 April 1967) to the ‘circle of Hans von Kulmbach’. Collectors’ marks are easy enough for a meticulous draughtsman to replicate, and Hebborn was admittedly prepared to forge them in order to impart veracity to a fake. Similarly, the painter and art forger Zhang Daqian falsified collectors’ marks for the paintings that he passed off as the work of much earlier Chinese masters.

The absence of a documented provenance may raise suspicions about an object’s authenticity. A marble kouros that appeared on the Swiss art market in the 1980s without any ownership history was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1985. Even decades after the acquisition, the question of the sculpture’s authenticity has not been resolved. In 1969 the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, purchased an unpublished Renaissance portrait of a woman attributed to Raphael. The dealer selling the painting attested that its provenance was traceable to the time of its commission in the 16th century, although the work was unknown to scholars and had never been documented. The picture became the subject of scrutiny after it was unveiled in America; it had been illegally removed from Italy and was ultimately repatriated by US Customs. The attribution to Raphael was quickly rejected by most specialists.

Because the question of provenance intersects with authenticity, an object’s ownership history can affect its marketability. Certain collectors’ names in the provenance of a work of art may be interpreted as an indication of an accurate attribution as well as of a certain level of quality. Lely’s insight as a collector, for instance, has long continued to impress. The first exhibition catalogue concerned with provenance was published in 1868, on the occasion of the National Exhibition of Art in Leeds; the catalogue discussed collectors’ marks on drawings, and in particular, those marked with Lely’s stamp. Provenance was likewise important to certain 18th-century collectors in Paris, such as Crozat family, §1, Quentin de Lorangère, and Mariette family, §4. It was the last of this trio of connoisseurs who recorded proudly on his fresh mount for a tripartite drawing by Domenico Beccafumi of Hercules (Paris, Louvre) that it was ‘olim Giorgii Vasari’. Even today, a ‘distinguished’ provenance may enhance the market value of a work of art.

3. Provenance and legal ownership.

Legal issues of ownership have made accurate and thorough provenance research particularly critical throughout the art world. While there have been disputes over the rightful ownership of works of art for centuries, the importance of provenance research in establishing title (legal ownership) received increased attention beginning in the 1990s. In part, this was due to the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, where 44 nations affirmed their commitment to locating art that was displaced during the period of National Socialism (1933–45) and was never returned. Since that time, countries in western Europe and North America in particular have worked to identify art stolen, looted, or forcibly sold in continental Europe during World War II and the Nazi period, and to make reparations for those objects where necessary.

The opening of archival holdings of wartime records facilitated the in-depth research required to document Nazi-era ownership. For example, the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz and the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, MD, house critical military documents pertaining to wartime looting in Europe as well as post-war restitution, that is, the return of plundered works of art to their rightful owners. Provenance research often entails documenting restitution in order to establish clear legal title. Nazi-era provenance research may also go beyond the scope of art history to include a study of the political and financial circumstances under which a work of art changed hands. This is necessary when considering whether a work of art was sold under duress due to racial persecution (see also Restitution, §4).

It is generally recognized that the lack of a verifiable provenance for an ancient work of art could signal a recent theft or illegal excavation. Thus repatriation claims for archaeological material have also highlighted the need for careful provenance research. Though the trafficking of illicitly excavated artefacts has long been a concern, the ownership history of antiquities became the focus of increased attention during the early 21st century. In the 1990s, Italian authorities seized a large number of antiquities from dealer Giacomo Medici in Geneva, along with business records and photographs of other objects believed to have been looted. Subsequent investigations led to repatriation claims by the Italian State for archaeological artefacts allegedly looted from its soil and the return, beginning in 2006, of objects from American museum collections, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, CA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In the years that followed, museums and auction houses repatriated unprovenanced antiquities to Turkey, Cambodia, India, and elsewhere. Determining whether an antiquity is legally owned typically involves the careful documentation of its provenance, coupled with an understanding of applicable cultural property legislation (see also Art legislation, §2).

4. Provenance research in the 21st century.

Along with the growing attention to the subject of provenance for legal reasons, the art world has seen an increasing scholarly interest in the history of collecting and taste. As a result of this interest, and aided by the rise of the internet, the number of online resources during the early 21st century increased and dramatically facilitated the process of provenance research. For example, the information in Lugt’s Marques de Collections was updated and became available online through a searchable database. Scanned copies of the catalogues of many pre-20th century auctions that had been recorded by Lugt were made available through a subscription service administered by the Dutch publisher Brill. The Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art and the Getty Research Institute, both of which house a large number of art dealers’ records, began to digitize selected resources. The Research Institute, which has been at the centre of scholarship on the history of collecting since the 1980s, made many records accessible through its searchable databases of European auction records and archival inventories.

Online resources have also allowed for greater transparency in the art market. Museums, auction houses, and many commercial galleries now share provenance information on their websites. The results of public auctions have been made easy to trace through subscription databases for art sales. Moreover, the internet has helped governments and individuals who wish to assert claims to stolen or missing works of art disseminate information about those objects quickly and easily, either through privately run databases or law enforcement sites. In the 21st century the study of provenance is no longer the exclusive domain of connoisseurs, but has become an integral part of due diligence for all participants in the art trade.


  • G. F. Waagen: Treasures of Art in Great Britain, 3 vols (London, 1854) and Galleries and Cabinets of Art in Great Britain (London, 1857)
  • G. Redford: Art Sales: A History of Sales of Pictures and Other Works of Art … Objects of Ornamental Art, 2 vols (London, 1888)
  • H. Mireur: Dictionnaire des ventes d’art faites en France et à l’étranger pendant les XVIIIe & XIXe siècles, 9 vols (Paris and Marseille, 1901–2)
  • A. Graves: A Century of Loan Exhibitions, 1813–1912, 5 vols (London, 1913)
  • A. Graves: Art Sales from Early in the Eighteenth Century to Early in the Twentieth Century, 3 vols (London, 1918–21) [mostly Old Masters and early Eng. pict.]
  • F. Lugt: Les Marques de collections de dessins et d’estampes (Amsterdam, 1921) [esp. the intro.]; suppl. (The Hague, 1956), (accessed 29 Jan 2016)
  • F. Lugt: Répertoire des catalogues de ventes publiques, 3 vols (The Hague, 1938–64)
  • F. B. Adams: The Uses of Provenance (Berkeley, CA, 1969)
  • B. B. Fredericksen and F. Zeri: Census of Pre-nineteenth-century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections (Cambridge, MA, 1972)
  • K. E. Meyer: The Plundered Past (New York, 1973)
  • T. Hoving: King of the Confessors (New York, 1981) [on the Cloisters Cross]
  • B. B. Fredericksen, ed.: Index of Paintings Sold in the British Isles, 3 vols, vol.1 (Santa Barbara, CA, and Oxford, 1988), vol.2, 2 parts (Santa Barbara, CA, and Oxford, 1990), vol.3, 2 parts (Munich, 1993)
  • E. Hebborn: Drawn to Trouble: The Forging of an Artist (Edinburgh, 1993)
  • T. Nesmith, ed.: Canadian Archival Studies and the Rediscovery of Provenance (Metuchen, NJ, and London, 1993)
  • N. H. Yeide, K. Akinsha, and A. L. Walsh: The AAM Guide to Provenance Research (Washington, DC, 2001)
  • P. Watson and C. Todeschini: The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York, 2007)
  • H. Waterfield and J. C. H. King: Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England, 1760–1990 (London, 2009)
  • G. Feigenbaum and I. Reist, eds: Provenance: An Alternative History of Art (Los Angeles, 2012)