Outside of authorship, provenance research is probably the most important aspect of art collecting. It serves as the backbone of authenticity, providing a verifiable narrative that weaves through the history of a piece, adding layers of value beyond the technical ability of the artist. The intricate record of ownership can elevate a work from a mere object of visual interest to a historical artefact, imbued with the richness of its past and the prestige of its previous holders. It can also verify legitimacy and prevent forgeries, and most cases of art fraud have happened because experts did not do their due diligence in regards to provenance research. Because of this, provenance can have a profound impact on an artwork's market value. Furthermore, to know that an object has been owned by someone of importance can be attractive to many buyers, as evidenced by the success of several celebrity auctions in the past few years. Ultimately, the proven track record of a piece can sway its desirability in a competitive art market.
Understanding an artwork’s provenance involves tracing and documenting the ownership history of an object. It is a critical aspect of art collecting and connoisseurship, as it provides a historical context that can authenticate a work of art and offer insight into its past owners – which might include famous individuals, notable galleries or even royalty. This lineage serves to authenticate the artwork, tracing its journey from creator to current keeper and ensuring the work was not acquired illegally or forged. This becomes especially crucial as forgery techniques evolve, and some of the worst scandals in the art world have happened because the buyer or staff failed to consider provenance appropriately. This was the reason the famous Knoedler Gallery in New York closed, for example, and why the director of the Orlando Museum of Art was fired; the supposed experts on the subject either failed professionally or willingly chose to turn a blind eye to this basic aspect of art handling, instead dealing with forgeries that had clear holes in the provenance history.
In cases where an artwork's provenance shows gaps or is non-existent, caution is exercised and further investigation is typically conducted. This might include scientific analysis, consultation with art historians and checking against databases of stolen art, such as the Art Loss Register or the Interpol database. Collectors and institutions often rely on provenance and these resources to ensure they are not inadvertently participating in the black market.
Controlling the black market of art is crucial as it is a key issue that poses a grave challenge to the integrity of the industry, affecting collectors, investors and the cultural heritage of societies at large. In this clandestine market, the lack of clear provenance can make it easier for illegal activities to flourish, as the true origin and history of artworks are obscured or falsified. A well-documented provenance can help in the restitution of artworks to their rightful owners if they were looted or stolen, as has often been the case with artworks seized by the Nazi regime from Jewish families. The antiquities trade is particularly affected by looting, and organised crime and terrorists often use the art world to launder money and finance their activities.
Trading in illegal art carries serious prison sentences and is condemned by international law. In 1954, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was held, the first international treaty that focused exclusively on the protection of cultural heritage – in this case, specifically within an armed conflict. Since then, it has been amended several times to ensure that the law stays up to date with contemporary issues and concerns.
A robust and detailed provenance can act as a barrier to the entry of illegitimate works into the legitimate market. By maintaining rigorous provenance research standards, the art community can safeguard against unethical practices, helping to preserve the integrity of art ownership and the cultural heritage that these works represent.
Oftentimes, it is not just the artwork’s legitimacy and authorship that affects its desirability on the market. Having been in the collection of a famous person, such as a historical figure or a singer or actor can significantly influence value, as has been proven by the several blockbuster auctions staged in the past few years. Freddie Mercury’s auction has so far been Sotheby’s most successful this year, and some objects had little inherent historical value – which was added only by his own personal ownership of it. Such was the case with a Tiffany & Co. moustache comb that helped achieve Mercury’s signature look, which had a hammer price of 381 times its low estimate: £152,400.
Before Freddie, David Bowie’s personal art collection held a record for most valuable celebrity auction and featured several of his favourite works. An avid contemporary collector, his favourites included Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst and Patrick Caulfield. The fact that these blue-chip artists’ works had been owned by a rock legend obviously made an impact on collectors as well, as the New York Times stated: “The collection of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ created a string of 12 auction highs for artists as the allure of the Bowie provenance pushed the values of Modern British art to a new level.”
A remarkable recent example of the way that a historical figure owning an object has affected its market value is when Sotheby’s auctioned one of Queen Marie Antoinette of France’s pearls in 2018. Originally estimated at 1,000,000-1,990,000 Swiss Francs, it sold for a hammer price of 36,427,000. While the piece was undeniably beautiful, it was mostly its ownership that appealed to bidders: it was believed that the piece was one of the few the Queen had managed to smuggle into the royal family’s late attempt at escape; this tragic provenance undoubtedly helped the jewel break the world record as the world’s most expensive natural pearl.
The film industry provides another example of how much celebrity provenance can positively affect market value. Audrey Hepburn is one of the most beloved silver screen icons in the world, famed for her grace, charm and elegance. In September 2017, Christie’s offered bidders a unique chance to purchase items from the actress’ personal collection, which included items from her wardrobe, portraits by famous photographers and annotated scripts. The collection was offered in three parts, and was incredibly successful at auction. Hepburn’s iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress, for instance, sold for $571,060, after being estimated at £50-70,000. The first and most important part raised $107,451,800 alone.
Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, Marilyn Monroe has become known for her wit, humour and sexual appeal. Also sold at Christie’s, her auction was significantly smaller in terms of quantity of lots and, because of that, in sales amassed. However, it was also a big hit, raising $13,405,785 and proving her fans were also willing to pay extra for a piece of property owned by the blonde bombshell herself. The most expensive item was the engagement ring given to her by Joe DiMaggio, which was estimated at $30-50,000 yet sold for $772,500.
The film industry provides another example of how much celebrity provenance affects market value.
Another type of special provenance that drives up sales is that of esteemed collectors, who have become known for their keen eye and art world connections; three of recent years’ largest sales have come from that. The most valuable of these was that of the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen at Christie’s – the biggest sale in recorded history, which eventually raked up $1.2 billion by featuring artists such as Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Klimt. Another notable auction was that of the monumental Macklowe collection, which brought Sotheby’s $922.2 million in May 2022 with works by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. Most recently, the collection of Emily Fisher Landau was an important feature of the Autumn 2023 season and brought in $366,188,800 for Sotheby’s – her collecting acumen of important Modern and Contemporary masters and impeccable provenance was incredibly valuable to the market.
Collectors seeking to delve into an artwork's history thankfully have a range of robust resources to aid in their research. Websites such as The Getty Research Institute offer a suite of tools including databases of archival documents, sales catalogues and public collection records which can be invaluable for tracing an artwork's lineage. For modern and contemporary art, The Museum of Modern Art's Provenance Research Project provides detailed histories for works from 1933 onwards. Additionally, WorldCat allows collectors to access a global network of library collections to find historical exhibition catalogues and art literature, key to piecing together an artwork's past. This collective ecosystem of tools equips collectors with the necessary information to ensure their collections are both legitimate and historically significant. Nevertheless, when purchasing an artwork one should always have full documentation including artists’ signatures to authenticity certificates and a detailed ownership history. In case of doubt, asking for an expert is always best: MyArtBroker has a network of specialists to help guide you through this process.
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