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Provenance and the Art Market

Controversies of the Art World

Elgin Marbles. c. 447-438 B.C.E..

Elgin Marbles. c. 447-438 B.C.E.. The British Museum.


When one thinks of the word ‘provenance,’ the first headline that comes to mind is the widely known case of the Elgin Marbles. The marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, currently exhibited at the British Museum in London, have long been embroiled in controversy.

On one hand, the British Museum claims they have valid ownership of the marble due to written permission from the Ottomans for Lord Elgin to remove the sculptures between 1801 and 1812. On the other hand, the Greek government asserts that the title should not be honored, for the title was determined by colonizers who had no right to sign off the rights to some of Greece’s most valued cultural property.

This controversy, which has not been resolved over more than a century of debates, is one example of ensuring sound provenance while navigating the art market. While provenance is becoming increasingly apparent in big-ticket headlines, a more practical application of provenance is essential for any art collector to understand.

Provenance Definition

In the simplest sense, provenance is the history of possession and physical movement of an object over time. In cases of illicitly trafficked, looted, theft, or sales made under duress, understanding the provenance of works of art is key to determining if restitution to the previous owner is necessary.

Napoleon's Impact on Provenance

The introduction of provenance as a concept is relatively recent. In April 1796, during the Napoleonic Wars, young general Napoleon Bonaparte led his army across the Alps to invade Italy and dissolve the various city-state monarchies.
After defeating the King of Sardinia, the Duchy of Milan and the Duchy of Modena, Napoleon turned his focus to the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s power, Vienna. The neutral Republic of Venice was on the troops’ route to Austria, leading Napoleon to completely dismember and dissolve the city’s government, thus declaring France the city's ruler.

On his warpath, Napoleon ordered the Italian states to hand over their artworks. The Vatican was emptied of the Laocöon, and many of Venice’s most prized paintings by Veronese. The spoils Napoleon collected along the way were so numerous that many became the basis for the Louvre Museum, including Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana from 1563. In total, he looted over 600 paintings and sculptures from Italy alone.

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese. 1563.

The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese. 1563. Musée du Louvre.


In 1815, the British army defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. After seeing the immense amount of spoils Napoleon wrongly collected from defeated cities, the Congress of Vienna (November 1815) banned the collection of spoils of war for future conflicts and required France to return any looted artworks to the country of origin.

In actuality, Napoleon only returned about half of the artworks, but this event marked the first major act of restitution in modern times. Following Napoleon's rule, it was not until World War I and II that provenance reappeared as a major international concept.

Nazi Looting Explained

Before and during World War II, Hitler began systematically looting artworks from major Jewish collections and museums in occupied territories. As a failed art student, Hitler envisioned building the world’s greatest art museum filled with his ideal of “good” art, which excluded any art considered “degenerate,” aka modern or Jewish art.

The Nazis began systematically targeting the property of Jewish collectors, such as the world-famous Rothschild collection or the many Jewish art dealers in France, Germany, Austria, Poland and more. Moreover, the Nazis funded their devastating war efforts by auctioning off artworks to buyers across Europe and America. By the end of the war, Nazis had looted about 20% of the art in Europe and destroyed hundreds of thousands of modern “degenerate” art.

Musiciens sur Fond Multicolore by Chagall.

Musiciens sur Fond Multicolore by Chagall. 1981. M.S. Rau.
Following the end of World War II, Allied forces part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (also known as the ‘Monuments Men’) began attempting to restitute as many artworks as possible to their rightful owners. Lost to the quagmire of dealers buying and selling art, unfortunately, many Jewish owners could no longer identify or retrieve their artwork. Today, over 100,000 artworks have still not been returned to their owner.

The Nazi’s systematic looting and increased cases of illicitly trafficked artworks to Western countries prompted the United Nations to submit the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The 1970 Convention urged state members to prohibit the illicit trafficking of cultural property and provided a framework for establishing collection inventories and export certificates.

Modern Provenance Regulations

From that point forward, 1970 became a ‘hard-line rule’ for art dealerships and museums to refuse the acquisition of material that left its country of origin after 1970 without the correct documentation. Moreover, the 1970 Convention opened a new field of research in art history: provenance research.

Every dealership, auction house, or museum has staff members dedicated to researching the provenance of objects in their collections. Provenance research is inherently connected to due diligence, or the belief that any potential or current owner must attempt to construct the provenance of a piece to achieve good faith ownership.

Much of provenance research requires identifying any sales the object may have been a part of, whether at an art gallery or in an auction house’s sale. Moreover, identifying any exhibitions or literature in which the object was included can be a major step in identifying possible owners.

Provenance research is inherently tied to archival research, where most of the information can be found on an object. This can prove extremely difficult due to the lack of access to archives containing essential information or simply the passage of time obscuring what happened in the past. Therefore, when an object with stellar provenance is put on the market, its authenticity is bolstered, and its value may increase.

As provenance becomes a larger issue in the twenty-first century’s art market, objects with clean bills of provenance are highly valued for their stability and good faith ownership. No matter the type of art, provenance research can also raise the monetary value of an object due to its possible ownership or commissioning by a high-profile collector.

Strong Provenance Examples:

Russian Imperial Silver Punch Set. 1874-75.

Russian Imperial Silver Punch Set. 1874-75. M.S. Rau.

For example, this Royal Russian Silver Punch Service is an extraordinary object due to its interesting provenance, which can be traced back to its commissioning by Czar Alexander III. The Czar gifted the punch service to Captain Joseph Wiggins in 1875 in recognition of his exploration of the Yenisei River.

Provenance research can also be used to evaluate the authenticity of an object. In the case of Henri Manguin’s exceptional painting Nature Morte aux Cyclamens, whose provenance statement begins with its acquisition by Galerie E. Druet directly from the artist in 1913, the direct connection to the artist bolsters its validity. Another method of ensuring authenticity is providing a certificate of authenticity.

Nature Morte aux Cyclamens by Manguin. 1912.
Nature Morte aux Cyclamens by Manguin. 1912. M.S. Rau.

Certificate of Authenticity Template

A Certificate of Authenticity (COA) is an important document that proves the artwork sold is genuine and provides key information on the object, such as the materials used. As a buyer, it is essential to practice due diligence by obtaining a certificate of authenticity or provenance report for any prospective art purchase.

Auction houses and art galleries also use provenance or COAs to assure buyers that they sell credible objects. COAs can be given by specialists in the artist or object being examined and through its inclusion in an artist’s catalogue raisonné. Wildenstein Plattner Institute (WPI) is one example of an accredited organization whose letters of authenticity provide validity, as seen in the WPI’s letter of authenticity for Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Au Bord de la Rivière.

Au Bord de la Rivière by Renoir. 1896
Au Bord de la Rivière by Renoir. 1896. M.S. Rau.

Provenance Moving Forward:

As provenance receives more recognition from the news, the importance of conducting provenance research and obtaining a certificate of authenticity cannot be stressed enough. While provenance is core to high-profile issues of restitution and cultural patrimony, it also serves a much more practical purpose of aiding in determining value and authenticity.


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