Neither a region in France nor a city in Rhode Island, provenance (pronounced “prävənəns”) is defined as “a record of ownership of fine art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.” And this is a term that collectors from Palm Beach to New York to Los Angeles, and around the world, should be familiar with.
While the definition seems straightforward enough, its practical application can be difficult if you don’t know exactly what constitutes a strong provenance.
The key word here is “record.”
Artwork is oftentimes easier. Paintings tend to be signed by the artist, and portraits are a visual record of the subject.
So, let’s focus on things that, of themselves, are not their own corroboration. With furniture or other fine art items that may have been owned by someone of historical note or items that may have been otherwise historically connected as a result of location, a story is only as good as its provability.
If an item is billed as having once belonged to someone notable, look for evidence. Is there an inscription? If so, do I trust it? Does it look too fresh for the age of the piece? Is the piece of the right era of origin to have belonged to the person in question?
The fastest way to raise the price of a fine art item is to give it a pedigree, and there are spectacular fakes out there. Even the best and most studied dealers can be fooled. So, like much of life, it’s always a good idea to get as much on paper as possible.
In the best-case scenario, there will be a letter or journal entry or shipping record or something in print contemporary with the piece and its owner that will definitively show that it had been theirs at one time. This, clearly, will be part of the sale whether you also buy that original document or are given a copy. But just like the engravings, decide whether the letter itself looks authentic, and is the document sufficiently explicit to remove any doubt that it is referring to the piece on sale.
Many reputable dealers, including exhibitors at Palm Beach Show Group shows, go to great lengths to authenticate a provenance before perpetuating it. Many do not. So, scrutinize the evidence for yourself.
In the BEST best-case scenario, there is a photograph of the item with the person of esteem because, in this case, quite literally, a picture is worth a thousand words…to say nothing of dollars. Clearly, this is what you want, but this doesn’t always happen.
Even still, if you trust the seller enough to make the purchase without the proof, taking the time to scrutinize available online images of the subject can give you just what you’re looking for. The difference between a $1,000 item and a $10,000 item could be lurking in the background of a photograph on Wikipedia!
Remember that a lot of being a fine art and antique buyer is learning to trust your instincts, but there will never not be a use for due diligence and a little research.