How many times, looking at an artwork, have we found ourselves wondering about the long and mysterious path that has led it from the studio of the artist to the wall just in front of us? Although the past history of an object is certainly a fascinating topic to speculate about, documenting provenance correctly can be quite tricky. This article will provide a short introduction on how to get to grips with provenance research.

The term provenance is most commonly used to define: “the history of the ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality; a documented record of this.”1 The primary aim in researching the provenance of a work of art is to provide evidence of its production; therefore helping to establish its authenticity. As Julian Radcliffe Chairman of the Art Loss Register, a world wide database for stolen or lost works of art, claims: “the provenance of an interesting item has always been important in relation to proving authenticity and often this is one of the most important ways in which fakes are detected.” In a world where art forgery is widespread and, as underlined by one of the latest issues of The Economist, legal battles over the authentication of art works are shaking the art world, tracking provenance increasingly gains importance.2

Moreover, the history of the ownership of a work of art can shed new light on its artistic value. If an art piece can boast an impressive provenance, having been part of renowned collections or having been exhibited in important institutions and museums, this will affect its cultural value.

A notable provenance can also have a positive impact on the monetary value of the work at stake. Conversely, an incomplete provenance, especially with a gap during the years of the Nazi Era, when many works were looted, can raise serious legal issue and reduce the chances to sell the work.3 Therefore, a well-documented provenance is also fundamental for legal and commercial purposes: any buyer will aim to minimize the chances of buying a stolen work, and a work of art is more likely to be sold if its ownership is indisputable.

The Chamberlains Worcester Vase is an emblematic example of the negative consequences of an unclear provenance.  In September 2012 the Art Loss Register managed to recover this precious Ice Pail and Twin Handled Vase stolen from Berkeley Castle.

While carrying out a routine catalogue search of a subscribing UK auction house, the ALR identified the stolen item and, working quickly and with the full cooperation of the auction house, they managed to withdraw the object from the auction. The ALR then contacted the consignors, a local couple hoping to auction the contents of their home. Upon hearing that the works were stolen from Berkeley Castle the consignors agreed to immediately release the works for return to their rightful owner. We can conclude that a well-documented provenance will reassure both buyers and collectors that the work has not been stolen or looted.

Provenance should therefore be a central concern of any art collector or owner of works of value in general. Although conducting research in these regards might seem difficult, today the web offers several possibilities for a first simple examination that can be conducted by these collectors themselves and lead to satisfying results.

A good starting point is the International Foundation for Art Research website, an online database of all the existing catalogue raisonné recorded in one place.4 As the catalogue raisonné provides a comprehensive account of oeuvre of the artist, it will most certainly give useful information for collectors. You can find out about exhibition history and provenance either on the page dedicated to the work of art itself, or in the bibliographic references at the end of the volume.

If you find that exhibition catalogues listed in the catalogue raisonné have been published and are accessible, it is worth checking them as well. In most cases these catalogues will provide the names of the lenders, revealing previous owners of the works exhibited.

Another fundamental step in provenance research is a close examination of the work of art itself: paintings and sculptures often have labels stuck onto their less visible areas such as the back of a picture frame or the base of a sculpture. Labels are useful in tracking the history of the work as they refer to previous owners or galleries where they have been sold, and sometimes include addresses or dates.

Similarly, any document received along with the work of art (purchase records from galleries or auction houses, insurance papers, loan certificates, authenticity certificates or shipping receipts) also will tell a piece of the history of the work.

These kinds of documents are invaluable clues in the reconstruction of the provenance as they provide the names of the people who have handled or owned the object. For obvious reasons, labels cannot be stuck on the back of works on paper; prints and drawings usually have the collector's marks on the back. The “Fondation Custodia”  has compiled an extremely useful online database of all collectors’ marks. This website's research engine, using your mark description, leads directly to the collector's page, which will also have a detailed description of the collection.5

These few simple steps constitute the preliminary examination to provenance reconstruction of any art piece. Getting started with them is essential to provide a solid ground, however, there will be a lot more to discover. As we will see in my next article, the intriguing journey through the reconstruction of provenance will take you from your laptop's keyboard to the dusty shelves of libraries, from the first-hand examination of a work of art itself, to digging into archives around the world.


1. Soanes, Catherine, et al. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary. New ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


3. At the beginning of the 1930s the Nazi regime was responsible for the largest looting and confiscation of art works throughout Europe. Since 1990s public attention has been brought to the issue or unreturned art and extensive provenance research has been undertaken since then.

4. “Catalogues Raisonnés,” International Foundation for Art Research. New York, NY, USA. Last visited December 2012. Site source:

5. Lugt, Frits. Les Marques del Collections de Dessins & d’Estampes. Fondation Custodia, Paris, France.  Last visited December 2012. Site source:

Cover Image:  Courtesy of the Art Loss Register, taken at National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Chairman Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register; Image copyright: Graham Trott