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Collecting fine art or artifacts? The proof is in the provenance.

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Shortly after Elizabeth Taylor died in 2011, her collection of jewelry, clothing, decorative arts and film memorabilia was put up for auction. Every lot sold, and her estate grossed GBP 103 million – far more than the pre-sale estimates. A few months later, her art collection, which included works by Van Gogh, Degas and Pissarro, sold for GBP 13.8 million – more than twice the pre-sale appraisal.

Willing buyers

How is the value of art or artifacts determined?

“The price a willing buyer will pay to a willing seller
for a free and unencumbered transaction.” That’s the textbook answer. This is also the view generally insurers take when valuing fine art and specie.

Many factors can affect how much
a buyer is willing to pay – whether the piece is purchased at an auction, from a gallery or directly from the artist.

With fine and decorative art, valuations are greatly influenced by the artist’s reputation and recent sales history. With jewelry and other artifacts, the physical materials underpin the value; the weight of the precious metals for example, or the size and quality of the gems. The brand can also matter; two otherwise identical diamond rings, for instance, could have widely different values based on the relative prestige of the brands behind them. And for all collectibles, historical or cultural significance can have a positive impact on an item’s desirability.

The importance of provenance

An object’s provenance can also have an effect on how much a buyer is willing to pay, sometimes considerably.

Provenance is a record of previous ownership, custody and location. Although the concept is relevant in other fields like archaeology, provenance documents for fine art and artifacts serve to confirm an object’s authenticity and affirm that it has not been stolen or altered. These reports also help to establish contextual and circumstantial evidence supporting an object’s significance within the arc of history, especially when the documentation covers ownership history and location. Fine art or artifacts with a desirable provenance often garner higher valuations compared to similar pieces, while buyers will usually not pay a premium for an object with a hazy provenance.

The documentation can range from a simple “certificate of authenticity” pasted on the back of a painting, to scholarly articles with detailed historical references and the results of scientific investigations.

Provenance also has two dimensions: nature and quality. And both can make a difference in valuations and sales results.

Values will often be elevated for objects having an unusual backstory or prior owners who were famous. Works that have been included in major museum exhibitions and accompanying catalogs will also be valued higher, as this reinforces the legitimacy of the artwork and its importance in an artist’s oeuvre.

Conversely, when an object’s provenance is incomplete or of poor quality – there are significant gaps in the ownership history or questions about who produced it – its value will typically be diminished.



When a seller is reluctant to show the provenance upfront, that usually means something about the piece is suspect.


The numerous photographs of Elizabeth Taylor wearing different jewels offer clear proof that she did indeed own these items, and her cachet apparently contributed to the readiness of willing buyers to pay a premium for them.

At the same time, the purchaser of one of her most famous pieces subsequently canceled the sale after learning that its alleged prior ownership by a Moghul emperor could not be confirmed. In this case, the fact that Elizabeth Taylor once owned the piece added to its appeal, but questions about its previous ownership undercut its value.

Every picture tells a story, “don’t it”

Given the effect provenance can have on a piece’s valuation, it’s not surprising that unscrupulous dealers sometimes go to great lengths to establish seemingly impressive provenances, especially for fakes attributed to renowned artists.

From 1994 to 2008, the Knoedler Gallery in New York, at that time the city’s oldest and most respected gallery, sold about 40 paintings attributed to prominent postwar artists like Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. They were allegedly from the collection of a mysterious Swiss collector known simply as “Mr. X.” Buyers included Wall Street luminaries and the Chair of Sotheby’s.

They were actually painted by an unknown Chinese artist working in a garage in Queens. The scheme unraveled when the buyer of a large painting attributed to Rothko became suspicious of the provenance documentation provided by the gallery. It was subsequently discovered that none of the art experts who claimed the piece was authentic, including the artist’s son Christopher, gave the gallery permission to use their names. In fact, Christopher Rothko testified in court that he “never” authenticates his father’s paintings.

Alan Bamberger, a San Francisco-based art consultant and appraiser,
 and author of the book The Art of Buying Art, says that one should “never bid on or buy art without seeing the provenance first.” He also stresses that whatever information is provided should be independently confirmed and verified. Gaps in the record should be investigated and statements from experts substantiated. As Bamberger notes, “provenance is fact, not supposition.”

Bamberger also cautions buyers to be particularly wary in online auctions where the seller will only show the provenance to the winning bidder after the fact. “If you can’t see 
[the provenance], don’t bid and don’t buy. Period.” In his experience, when a seller is reluctant to show the provenance upfront, that usually means something about the piece is suspect.

Mitigating the risks

Buying and owning fine art and artifacts can be immensely satisfying. Coming across an object that resonates in a meaningful way can evoke a strong emotional response, and those feelings can grow and deepen as the piece becomes part of one’s daily landscape.

It is an enthusiasm that also carries some risk.

Aside from the importance of confirming the provenance, fine art and artifacts need to be protected against being stolen or damaged, including when in transit. Getting the right protection in place is crucial.

Provenance and FAME

The past few months offer ample evidence of how values can soar on objects with a desirable provenance.

First, there was Robin Williams’ collection of 87 bicycles. An avid cyclist, Williams had amassed an impressive assortment of makes and models. Proceeds from the auction were three times the pre-sale estimates. A custom-made racing bike built by the Italian frame builder Dario Pegoretti drew the most bids and reportedly sold for USD 22 thousand.

A few weeks later, more than 400 pieces from David Bowie’s collection of art and artifacts also went up for auction. Again, final prices greatly exceeded pre-sale estimates. In fact, more than half of the 59 artists whose works were featured set sales record. The star of the collection was a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat that Bowie bought in 1995 for GBP 78.5 thousand. Pre-auction estimates pegged its value at USD 3.3 million. It ultimately fetched USD 8.8 million.

Finally, Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” dress recently sold for USD 4.8 million, a world-record for an item of clothing. Monroe wore the dress at an event for U.S. President John F Kennedy ahead of his 45th birthday, where she memorably serenaded him. The flesh-colored, custom-made gown was reportedly so tight fitting that she had to be sewn into it.


Art Provenance: What It Is and How to Verify It
 (n.d.). Retrieved from

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