Knowing the origin of expensive artworks has become a prime requirement in fine art markets. Provenance is exact information that leaves no doubt that an artwork is genuine and executed by the artist whose signature it bears.

The best practice is when the paper trail of an artwork can be traced from its current home back to the artist’s studio. The absence of good provenance has led to the attribution of well-known artists to lesser paintings.

The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, popularly known as the NGV, announced in 2007 that one of its prime portraits, Head of a Man, was found not to be a work by Vincent van Gogh. The painting, attributed to Van Gogh in 1920, entered the NGV collection in 1940, when the museum acquired it from a touring French and British contemporary art exhibition.

Its attribution was rebuffed by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. While experts in Amsterdam determined that the material properties corresponded with those used by Van Gogh, they rejected the attribution based on stylistic differences when it was compared with authentic Van Gogh portrait paintings. Vincent van Gogh had also never mentioned the painting in any of his letters to his famous art dealer brother, Theo van Gogh.

The NGV accepted the verdict as the sitter in the painting could not be identified and no early trustworthy provenance documents could be traced. Many other false attributions are focused on criminal intent to deceive the art world.

The internet has become a significant source for discovering artworks to satisfy the growing demand for investment art. Collectors should be cautious as fake or questionable provenance histories may be presented to entice a sale. It is much easier to fake provenance documents than to copy a reputable artist. This has led to the practice of placing false signatures on unsigned paintings resembling the style of a famous artist.

Two recent art exhibitions turned out to be an embarrassment for the institutions hosting them. In Belgium, Russian art experts questioned the provenance of a collection of Russian avant garde paintings exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. Following a review, the director of the museum was suspended when it turned out that the works by major artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, El Lissitzky and others were forgeries.

And 20 paintings in a major Amedeo Modigliani exhibition in the Ducal Palace in Genoa were confirmed as being fakes and the exhibition was closed pending police investigation.

Had the organisers and curators verified the provenance of the paintings on display, these scandals could have been avoided. The authenticity of all artworks, even if they bear the artist’s signature, may at some stage during its history be questioned. This is especially true for works that are several decades old.

It makes good sense to begin provenance research by determining if a catalogue raisonné listing comprehensively all the known works by an artist has been published. Typical provenance documentation includes receipts and invoices that are proof that a seller owns an artwork.

Professional appraisals offer documentation of a work’s age and ownership. Should the documented path from an artist’s studio not be available, acceptable provenance data may exist in other forms.

A signed certificate of authenticity issued by a well-known and reputable authority in the fine art business is normally sufficient. Also, a written opinion obtained from connoisseurs respected for their knowledge about a certain artist’s style would remove any doubt regarding the work’s authenticity.

A photograph of the artist next to a work or a recording where the artist talks about a particular painting will also confer provenance. If the artists are alive, they can issue statements providing the work is authentic. A mention or photograph of the artwork in an exhibition catalogue, a newspaper article, magazine, art book or museum archive will support its provenance.

The back of a painting can be examined for gallery or auction stickers, the names of previous owners or past exhibitions. The original sales receipt issued by the gallery or the artist should be filed carefully or be stuck on the verso side of the artwork.

Requesting a copy of an original receipt from a seller and keeping it will strengthen the provenance. While dealers and auction houses usually protect the identity of sellers, they will normally provide guarantees or some form of veiled provenance to preserve their reputations for selling genuine artworks.

When a prestigious art collection appears on the market, the collector’s identity is normally well published as this boosts sales. The provenance associated with such collections invariably increases the value and desirability of the artworks since the authenticity will be established.

The recent David Bowie and Rockefeller sales in New York saw several sales records broken. Dodgy individuals are able to fool both inexperienced and experienced collectors with fabricated previous ownership records and time-lines.

Before bidding on or buying any valuable art, verify that the provenance details are legitimate and verifiable and that it corroborates the authorship of the artwork. A valid provenance document must clearly describe the work on offer. It should be signed and must contain important information such as the work’s title; its medium and dimensions; if known, the creation date; and a quality photograph.

An interesting development from Boston University known as Mapping Art was launched recently. This open-source software was designed to track the history of paintings by creating a verifiable itinerary of when and by whom they were owned. This initiative and catalogues raisonnés go a long way to help to eliminate fraud in the art world.

© 2020 by Walker Scott.

Proudly created with