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How To Safely Navigate The Art Market: Provenance

November 26, 2018

Provenance is an interesting topic to think about since every work of art has a provenance (history of ownership), but the complete provenance may not be known.  Important works (those created by artists who have always been considered historically influential) usually have detailed provenance, while minor works by these same artists may not.  At the same time, there are many artists who were once considered important but fell out of favor over the years… in turn, prices for their works took a dramatic drop – selling for a fraction of their original cost.  When that happens, these works begin to trade as purely ‘decorative’ pieces, and it becomes tough to keep track of both the number of times they were bought and sold and who the buyers and sellers were – this may create gaps in their provenance.

The 19th-century French Academic artists are a great example of artist’s whose works fell out of favor at one point.  During the 1880s & 1890s, wealthy American collectors were among the biggest buyers of French Academic art, and some paid staggering prices.  Paintings by Bouguereau, Vibert, Dupré, Ridgway Knight, Cazin, Munier, and Bonheur originally cost thousands of dollars.  In fact, one of Bouguereau’s major works from the late 1890s, L’admiration (1897), was sold in 1900 for $45,000.00! (the painting is now in the collection of the San Antonio Museum, San Antonio, Texas)  By the 1920s the Academic artists fell from grace and much of their art could be bought for under $1,000 and some for a little as $50… hard to believe, but it is true.  Great Bouguereau paintings that appeared on the market in the 20s and 30s were selling for $600 – $1,000; Julien Dupré’s cost as little as $50 and large Ridgway Knight paintings sold for $300.  When is time travel going to be a reality?

Since many of these works had little value from the 1920s through the late 1960s, detailed records of ownership were rarely kept, and much of that information is all but lost.  Today, with renewed interest in many earlier periods of art, including the 19th century Academic painters, dealers and collectors are trying to piece together the ownership history for each work they acquire.  Compiling a complete provenance can add a great deal of interest, and possibly some value.

Now you may be wondering: how can the provenance add value?  Well, ideally it should not – value should be based on quality, condition, etc.; but there is something I refer to as  ‘the celebrity factor’ – a phenomenon that is often seen in the auction arena when entire auctions feature the property of a ‘famous’ person.  When these sales take place, you may find that fans want to acquire something the celebrity owned and the hype, along with the ensuing frenzy, can result in huge prices for ‘stuff’ or ‘junk.’  People are being led to believe that just because someone famous owned the item (or is now part of the provenance) that the value of those items will remain excessively high, regardless of the quality and condition — I have my doubts.  I believe that years later, most of these items will be judged not only on their provenance but on quality, condition, and desirability … in other words, do not get caught up in the initial craziness; you might find that when you want to sell, there is a serious price adjustment.

Of course, there are times when the provenance of an item will have a great impact on its price; good examples of this can be found in the furniture market.  If there are two identical 18th-century armchairs for sale and one belonged to Marie Antoinette, you can bet that the market is going to pay much more for the one she sat on.

Another important point when thinking about provenance are the war years – specifically World War II.  Just prior to and during that time (1933 – 1945), the Nazi’s stole/confiscated/looted thousands upon thousands of works by historically important artists — many of which were owned by Jewish families.  Today, when works by artists who were known to have been targeted appear on the market (examples: Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Sisley, van Gogh, Klimt, etc.), it is vital that the provenance be as clear and complete as possible; especially for those works that were in European collections just prior to 1933.  You do not want to find out that you spent millions on a painting and then the rightful heirs start legal action for restitution.  You can read our story about tracking down the provenance on a Sisley painting here.

Anyway, in general, when looking at a work of art always ask about its provenance or history of ownership. While it is not a must for most works of art that are bought and sold today, if available it is a nice thing to have.

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