The importance of provenance

March 3, 2021


The importance of provenance

The recent dispute between the auction house Christie’s and the Mexican government has yet again underlined how important a role provenance plays in determining original ownership and authenticity of art works and antiquities.

Mexico urged Christie’s to cancel a sale in Paris of more than 30 artifacts dating back to the country’s pre-Hispanic era, saying the items are part of its national heritage and should be returned to their country of origin. The auction comprises masks, including a highly prized one from the collection of a son of Henri Matisse, carved stones and other figures by Aztec, Mayan, Toltec and Mixtec cultures with some of the items expected to fetch as much as 900,000 euros ($1.1 million).

Christie’s maintained it only puts up items for sale if they have “verifiable documented provenance” and the company is satisfied with their authenticity and ownership.

“Under no circumstance would Christie’s knowingly offer a work of art where we know the property to have been looted or illicitly obtained,” the company said in a statement.

Provenance, from the French ‘provenir’ meaning to come from/forth, represents the chronology of ownership, custody or location of a work of art or object which is of great importance to the owner or potential future owner as it increases the value of a painting or object and can help resolve ownership disputes.

For example, provenance between 1933 and 1945 can determine whether a painting was looted by the Nazi’s. There are no definitive records but some experts reached a consensus that Adolf Hitler and his cohorts amassed a horde of over 600,000 stolen art works. It is said that 20% of Europe’s art was looted during the Second World War. A 1997 study estimated that some 100,000 stolen artworks were still missing. In 1998, 44 countries created a central public registry of art that might be Nazi ‘loot’.

Many galleries are putting a great deal of effort into researching the provenance of paintings in their collections for which there is no firm record during that period. Though many art works have been returned, there is little worldwide concord amongst museums, auction houses and collectors regarding compliance and laws still tolerate the grey market for stolen art.

Five countries – Austria, Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands – have independent national commissions for handling claims, but their practices vary. Different statutes of limitations and the rising value of the disputed artworks have an obvious impact. Claimants often rely on the good will of collectors or institutions for the return of the works.

Documented evidence of provenance for an object can help to establish that it has not been altered, is not a forgery, a reproduction, stolen or looted art. Furthermore the quality of provenance of an important work of art can make a considerable difference to its selling price in the art market with an expert certification resulting in the difference between an object having no value and being worth a fortune.

Despite the fact that the Statute of Limitations has expired in most countries with regards to art theft, the emotive response to Nazi stolen art in particular, drives many museums to support the return of the work to the original owner. In the case of the famous Gustav Klimt ‘Woman in Gold’ portrait, though, the Austrian government continued to dispute provenance, citing the details of the will of the original owner in its defence. It finally had to relinquish its battle with the family when in 2006 it was sold at a Christie’s auction to the American cosmetics giant, Ronald Lauder for $135 million.

Proving provenance can often be difficult, and it becomes increasingly so, as time passes. While provenance research has improved, a set of complex legal issues makes restitution difficult to resolve. There can be little doubt in the art world that defective title and restitution will remain contentious issues which will impact legal ownership of art.

As part of the unique iTOO Artinsure product offering, there is optional cover available for the inadvertent purchase of a work from a reputable art dealer called Defective Title cover (i.e. your title to the work has become defective because it’s rightfully owned by another). Fakes and Forgeries cover is also an optional cover available to our clients to protect against the inadvertent purchase of a fake from a reputable art dealer.

Speak to your insurance broker if you are unsure that your collection of artworks and/or collectables is properly insured with a product that truly recognises the difference in the insurance of appreciating assets.

99 comments on “The importance of provenance

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