Art Finance Term: Provenance



One of the most common terms in Art Finance and art investing, and possibly the most important, is provenance. From the French word provenir, meaning “to come from,” it is a chronological record of ownership of a painting, sculpture, or other works of art. You might hear this term come up in other areas, like books, wines, archaeology, and even seeds—the term generally has the same meaning.

Provenance is important because it helps establish an object’s authenticity by tracing the ownership documents back to the artist who created it. The best provenance records start with paperwork from the initial sale of the piece to its first owner. A break in the record of ownership is a red flag. It can indicate that a piece was acquired through theft or looting, or that it is inauthentic. If there are gaps in the ownership history, there are public art databases that can help identify lost or stolen art works, like the Art Loss Register.

Good provenance also helps support the authenticity and attribution of an artwork. Authenticity can be established through a variety of methods. Sources can include a signed certificate of authenticity from an artist’s authentication committee or estate, or inclusion in an artist’s catalogue raisonne. A catalogue raisonne is a reference book written by an art scholar that details all known works created by the artist, including the history of ownership, exhibitions, and any newspapers, magazines, and letters from experts discussing the artworks.

We took a real example of provenance from Paul Gauguin’s Fleurs Dans Un Vase to show you what this looks like:

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