The Problem With Provenance

When buying artwork we all like to know the provenance of the piece. Who made it, is it a new piece and if not who owned it beforehand?
Having read an article in the art review this week, it got me thinking just how important it is to make sure you know about a pieces provenance before agreeing to buy it. Here is a little example of how provenance could affect you…

Not knowing the provenance can be a terrible business. Recently Steven Brooks, an art collector from California attempted to sell a piece entitled ‘Allegorical Portrait of a Lady as Diana Wounded by Cupid’ by Van Loo (featured below). Brooks however came unstuck when Christie’s refused to sell the piece after doing a bit of research into the painting. They discovered that the piece was once owned by the Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering. This has simply rendered the painting worthless as it is now presumed Nazi loot and has put a cloud on the title. Brooks is now in the process of trying to sue Sotheby’s for not doing enough to research the paintings past in the first place. He bought the painting in 2004 from the auction for £57,600 and had no idea of it’s Nazi past. So far,no rightful claimants have been identified and non have come forward. If this remains to be the case, it is unclear what will become of the piece, its past makes it unsellable until it can either be proved Goering purchased the painting legitimately, restoring the line of title or the rightful owner identified. Either way, Brooks is certainly likely to loose out.

This may not however be the end of the road for ‘Allegorical Portrait of a Lady as Diana Wounded by Cupid’. Although it may be of no use to Brook’s,should the rightful owners of the piece be found and the painting returned, then its value could increase exponentially. This was true of the Gustav Klimt’s ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’, despitelooted by the Nazi’s, the piece was eventually restored to the rightful owners following a grueling court battle. The story captured the headlines at the time and the painting became iconic and culminated with it being sold for a record amount when put up by the new owner. Another famous example of this is Mark Rothko’s ‘White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)’, this is another piece that can be found on the worlds most expensive painting list, selling for a staggering 72.8 million dollars. This price would arguably had never been reached at the time, were not for Rockefeller (featured above with picture) being its prior owner. Rockefeller’s ownership of the painting has become so synonymous with the painting that it is now popularly referred to as the ‘Rockefeller Rothko’.

Provenance therefore isn’t just a past, but also a story. One which can have either a positive or negative effect on the art it uses to tell it.
Provenance is important and it shouldn’t be ignored. It usually only requires a small amount of research and doing it should could either save you money or unravel an exciting and interesting past that could even increase the pieces worth. The provenance of new original pieces may just be a receipt to begin with, but its how that work is used, wheres and it hung and who owns it in the future.

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