The New Face of Provenance Research

Like the stories depicted in them, works of art have stories of their own. These stories—of how an art object travels, is bought and sold, and physically changes over time—are called its provenance.

In the art world, the word provenance is sometimes weighted with anxiety and even anger. Provenance findings can be cause for celebration, or the end of hopes and dreams. That’s because the provenance of an artwork is often used to establish its value, especially when information like the artist’s name or creation date is unknown. Provenance research is key, for example, to establishing the authenticity of the proverbial masterpiece in the attic.

Beyond its role in influencing monetary value, however, provenance is also extremely important to understanding art history. In fact, piecing together artworks’ stories—retracing their movements by connecting the dots revealed in archives—is the basis for an entire field of study known as the history of collecting and art market studies.