Each month the Artophile offers essential advice to art collectors in the form of answers to their most frequently asked questions relating to affordable investment art. To have your question answered on this monthly feature page, click on Contact Us and make your request.

This month's topic...

What is meant by PROVENANCE, and why is it so important?

The PROVENANCE of a graphic print is the record of its history, ownership or stewardship. The starting point for determining this is the CATALOGUE RAISONNEE (the official authorized description of an artist's publications with all edition details. (e.g. the 4 volume CATALOGUE RAISONNEE series by Bloch for Picasso, or the 3 volume Cramer series for Henry Moore. An important newer publication is the long overdue official "adjudicator" for Dali by Michler and Loepsinger: Prestel, 1994). In these volumes the accurate publishing history of any legitimate picture of the artist can be verified beyond dispute as to its "birthright" and proper definition.

Aside from the obvious issues of guarding against forgeries, why is this so important?

From time to time certain artists, such as Chagall and Dali, have massaged the numbering system (see also EDITION SIZE ). For instance Dali's 1978 "Hommage to Venice " had several runs using the same number limits, but differing destinations: E1 --E350 (for distribution in Europe ), J1 -- J350 ( Japan ), A1 -- A350 America), as well as 3 different types of paper within each category. While there was nothing particularly illegal about this, one could fault the publisher/dealer with misrepresentation since almost every buyer assumed that he was buying one of an exclusive edition of 350.

Further confusions come into play with additional editions made with Roman Numerals, or special editions where the artist signed in a different colored pencil. The traps that these practices exposed the buyer to came to light in the 80's and indignant protests and even boycotts of certain artists ensued. Today these issues are largely resolved as the buying public becomes more informed and proactive in their purchase by asking questions and consulting the CATALOGUE RAISONEE .

Occasionally a work of art will have its complete "pedigree" of past owners who, if prestigious enough, not only lend credibility to the work but may also, by virtue of their art/business acumen or royal/political/social connections, actually increase the market desirability of the piece. Thus any pieces owned by reputable collectors such as Duveen, Melon or Getty have a blue chip PROVENANCE as well as a high perceived value of "association" and will always be easy to resell at a premium price.

The voyage of an artwork from publisher to the marketplace can often be documented by auction catalogues, sales receipts, appraisal certificates, etc. Some artworks bear the stamp of a major institution (museum, library, gallery, university, etc.) on the back or front of the image. These have at one time belonged to the archives of the institution. In most cases they came to public ownership through strategic offloading. While works documented in this way don't necessarily guarantee a premium price, this sort of documented history serves to support good PROVENANCE and increases the comfort level of prospective buyers, which in turn can "grease the wheels" for an easier sale in the future.

The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris keeps by law an example of every image produced in France since Napoleon and so serves as an excellent resource of PROVENANCE for all French printed works.

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