Collectors are naturally curious about the stories behind the works of art prominently displayed in their private spaces. If not working with an art advisor who will perform provenance research for you, there are resources available to the solo collector. Keep in mind that an artwork’s story will only go as far as the quality of record keeping, and that through the years, those repositories of information weren’t wiped out by wars or natural disasters. Sadly, however, generations of collectors haven’t known the importance of managing receipts, condition reports and other documentation, and so it often becomes difficult to attribute present meaning and value. Please don’t let this practice guide your collecting pursuits!
Again, to get started, look closely at the front and backside of the artwork in question for clues about previous ownership, where it’s traveled, been framed, been exhibited and been sold. If the artist is well-known or been the subject of scholarship, a catalogue raisonne may exist. This catalogue is the list of all known artworks made by the artist, and the key to determining authenticity.
Art libraries including the Frick Art Reference Library (New York), the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Watson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have amassed dealers’ records, auction catalogues and exhibition catalogues to help reconstruct ownership history. Both the Witt Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art (London) and the Frick Art Reference Library have extensive photo archives of artworks, useful resources when determining if a work has been restored, altered, cut down, divorced from a triptych or undergone any other alteration over time.
When determining value, Artnet, Art Sales Catalogues Online, and Artfact offer historical and up-to-the-minute sales and auction records. Though these are subscription databases, many art research libraries offer FREE on-site access.