The Proof is in the Provenance

Art provenance is the history of a particular artwork from its creation to the present. When buying a newly created artwork on the primary market—that is, when purchasing an artwork directly from the artist or from the artist’s gallery as part of the first exhibition of such work—the history of the piece is clear. However, when acquiring artworks that are being resold by the initial or a subsequent purchaser (also known as secondary-market sales), the issue of provenance becomes particularly important to the collector.

How is art provenance communicated to collectors?

Collectors active in the secondary art market are used to seeing a description of an artwork’s provenance or prior ownership on the invoice or bill of sale used during its purchase. The level of detail provided varies from transaction to transaction, and can include either the specific names of or generalizations about a work’s prior owners (for example, “Private Collection, New York”). Other means by which provenance is demonstrated by sellers to buyers include: 

Gallery or exhibition stickers affixed to the artwork.

An original or partially redacted invoice or receipt from a gallery or from the artist.

Photographs or films of the artist or a prior collector in which the artwork is depicted or discussed.

References to or illustrations of the artwork in a museum or gallery exhibition catalog.

Oral or written statements by recognized experts on the artist.

Oral or written statements by prior owners of the artwork confirming their acquisition and ownership of the same.

References to or illustrations of the artwork in an art book, newspaper, magazine or other publication.

Oral or written statements from individuals who knew the artist or know the past circumstances of the artwork.

All references to the artwork must be specific enough for the work to be properly identified; vague statements should not be accepted without additional inquiry. 

Why is art provenance so important?

Knowing the prior and true ownership history of a work of art is a critical part of the decision-making and due diligence processes in acquiring such artwork. Good provenance dramatically increases the value and desirability of a work by helping to establish its authenticity, as well as providing insight into its prior history. For example, if it is established that the work of art was previously owned by a respected art collector, its value increases significantly. Works that were originally gifts of the artist to an individual are often viewed as less important pieces in the artist’s body of work and will often have less documentation proving such origin. This, in turn, may raise questions as to the work’s authenticity. If an artwork comes from the estate of an artist, this may indicate that the artist never intended to sell the piece (especially if it is unsigned) or, alternatively, kept the work because of his or her affinity for the work or recognition of its importance. 

Why is gauging art provenance problematic?

Establishing the provenance of a work of fine art is often difficult, especially for older works. This is due to a number of factors, such as imprecise record-keeping and incorrect or conflicting opinions concerning authenticity and attribution on the part of art experts and historians. Gaps or inconsistencies in the history of a work of art can, and often do, arise. 

Knowing the value that collectors attribute to good provenance, unscrupulous art dealers and sellers may create an inaccurate or false provenance to convince a collector to buy or overpay for a work of art. Such questionable provenances can involve concocted ownership histories and sale documentation going all the way back to the artwork’s alleged creation. These practices are especially prevalent when works of art are sold online. 

What steps can collectors take to confirm provenance?

In light of the potential to either buy an inauthentic work of art or overpay for a work that has had its provenance embellished, collectors should take all reasonable measures to confirm the true provenance of artworks before bidding on or purchasing them. As well as proving the accuracy of the provenance, collectors must be sure that their findings are verifiable by methods acceptable to the art market. 

The following measures should be taken by collectors to evaluate the accuracy of prior ownership histories of artwork:

Prospective buyers must expressly ask for, and see, the evidence of a work’s provenance prior to bidding on or buying it. This must expressly describe the work in detail (title, medium, dimensions, etc.) in order for it to be relied upon. 

When evaluating supporting documentation, one must not rely on photocopies or partial copies. Rather, an inspection of original and complete documentary evidence is essential. Original signed bills of sale, complete catalog entries and full literary references must be insisted upon. 

Evidence of provenance should come from reliable sources that can be verified, such as reputable, existing galleries.

If the artwork in question was previously sold at public auction, inquiry to the relevant auction house should be made. 

Where possible, collectors should seek advice from an artist’s foundation. Many will have a print or online catalogue raisonné of their respective artist, and it should be confirmed that this includes the work being evaluated. 

One should insist on the names of private individuals who previously owned the work and, when possible, contact such persons or their descendants to confirm provenance claims.

Existing appraisals of a work of art should be relied upon only if prepared by an internationally respected authority on the artist. Expert reports, whether newly commissioned or existing, must confirm the authenticity of the artwork. 


As the value of art transactions in the secondary market continues to grow, the importance of conducting proper diligence, including an investigation into a work’s provenance, cannot be overemphasized. Collectors should be sure to engage competent art experts and art lawyers before undertaking an acquisition. Finally, the use of art title insurance can be helpful in both uncovering and insuring against potential problems arising from faulty art provenance.