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Collecting and Provenance Research: Methodology

Getting started


Provenance research can be challenging and is often dependent on the availability of surviving documentation. In constructing the ownership history of a work of art, researchers consult archival materials including inventory records, correspondence, contracts, and sale receipts. Exhibition and sale catalogues are very useful resources in conducting provenance research and a careful examination of the object itself is also invaluable— exhibition labels, inscriptions or stamps, and other marks from previous collectors, dealers, or auction houses are useful tools for determining ownership history. Often they provide the best clues to the work’s provenance.

Provenance research often depends on documents such as wills, archives, receipts, auction sales and dealers' records. Ownership can be discovered by tracking down objects in exhibition or auction catalogues, memoirs of the artist, archival records or manuscripts.

This guide is broken into six paths of research and a bibliography.

Objects: Inscriptions or distinctive marks (coats of arms), as well as exhibition stickers, dealer marks or stamps on the object can yield ownership information. An institution’s object files (curatorial and registrar’s) will contain some information on past owners and sometimes a wealth of information about past exhibitions.

Artists: Published resources on the artist, particularly catalogues raisonnés and early exhibition catalogues, can include a plethora of ownership information. 

Collectors: Bibliographic and biographical information about collectors and published catalogues of private collections can yield important provenance information.

Dealers: Dealer inventories or published dealer catalogues often are fruitful for provenance researchers.

Auctions: Auction results and historical auction catalogues are becoming more prevalent online making it easier for provenance research.

Archives: Archival information of all types-- for artists, collectors and dealers, can be vitally important.

Bibliography: This bibliography highlights published works on general provenance research. Each section above will include resources for specific topics.