Who traces provenance?
April 6, 2009 2:35 PM   Subscribe

How is the provenance of a painting traced?

I'm curious about who does the actual job of tracing the provenance of artworks, and how they do it. Is it a full-time research job, or something undertaken as and when by gallery and museum employees?
As an example, if a painting was discovered in an attic somewhere and was thought to be by a noteworthy artist, where would the research begin? Who would do it?
Or tracing the history of works that may have been stolen during the Nazi-era - who does this, and how? Google has a lot of info on provenance but everything I read seems to skim over the nuts and bolts of it.
posted by ask me please to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Often the curators at museums that want to buy the artwork do a lot of the legwork. The better they can prove the provenance, the more likely they can convince the Acquisitions Committee to release the funds to purchase.
posted by smackfu at 2:54 PM on April 6, 2009

I just read The Lost Painting, which details the discovery of a lost Caravaggio painting. They're mainly art historians and one restorer. A lot of the book follows the historians as they search through archives tracing the provenance of both the discovered painting and another one. And yes, basically someone came across a painting that they thought might be a missing Caravaggio, and after research it turned out to be one (Spoiler alert!).

(so it's probably a little more exciting than regular old every day art history, and also kind of the most boring book ever once you think about it a bit. But it's a fairly quick read and definitely goes into detail about tracing the history of paintings)
posted by ruby.aftermath at 2:55 PM on April 6, 2009

For recovery of World War II era stolen art, you should read the book and see the subsequent, really tremendous film "The Rape of Europa."
posted by Morrigan at 3:00 PM on April 6, 2009

Best answer: Archives, archives, archives. Dealer catalogues, exhibition catalogues, auction catalogues, bills of sale, household inventories, references to artworks in private correspondence, etc. It can even extend to the type of card used to mount prints, or the style of carving or gilding for a frame.

This piece on the Courtauld Institute's site gives you a nice little narrative of how the process works; this section of the Getty site gives you a sense of the archival material that's involved.

For the larger collections, it's a full-time job and an ongoing process to update the "biographies" of each piece as new documentation comes to light, and that data becomes part of the archival pool used to fill out the history of other works. Auction houses train and employ people to handle that kind of work. And the big art-history institutions (often affiliated to museums) teach the research methods.
posted by holgate at 3:07 PM on April 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

From my understanding, there are a couple things that go on.

Let's take your example of someone finding work in their attic they believe to be by a famous artist. The person would contact a museum or gallery and attempt to contact an Art Historians who is an expert in a specific time period or artist. This sometimes works quite well, and in the case of the 144 previously unknown Martin Ramirez pieces. However, that is a rare case because 1) The woman was able to present a clear case up front as to why it was extremely likely that she had Ramirezes in her possession and 2) The Folk Art/Outsider Art community is small enough that it would be fairly obvious who she should contact.

Now, I work at a larger museum and sometimes I am the operator, meaning I handle all calls coming into the general line. There is rarely a day that goes by where someone doesn't call tell us they have a priceless painting in their attic that they just discovered. At that point, we inform them that our museum does not do assessments, and we refer them to an auction house. From my understanding, most museums or galleries do not bother themselves with assessing the works directly. Auction houses and other similar institutions, in the interest of making a profit for all involved, have far more people employed to verify value of the piece and the identity of the artist. References to a piece that fits the description in external documents (the artists' journal, a patron contract, etc) obviously go very far in helping to backing up said claims.

posted by piratebowling at 3:09 PM on April 6, 2009

For a private individual researching the origin of an artwork, Ask Joan of Art might be a good start. If you have reason to believe that the work may be of value, the American Society of Appraisers can suggest a particular appraiser that you can engage (At this point, there will be a fee.).
posted by Morrigan at 3:22 PM on April 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much to all of you, there's some brilliant stuff here.

I haven't found anything in the attic (too bad!), I just wanted to figure out how the legwork was actually done. The links and book recommendations are great.
posted by ask me please at 3:31 PM on April 6, 2009

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