The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) has recently published a Provenance Guide. As set out in the Introduction to the Guide, provenance had historically concerned the attribution and authenticity of a work. The recent wave of claims by Nazi Holocaust survivors, or their heirs, as well as the threat of illegal exports from foreign source countries, has broadened the scope of provenance research. The Guide is a useful tool containing indications on how to ascertain provenance as well as several bibliographical lists of institutions and archives.
Provenance research can be broadly compared to a title search or a due diligence exercise. Interestingly, the Guide exhorts the reader to ‘use creativity, persistence, attention to detail and (…) to think outside the box’.
Of primary importance is the existence and integrity of existing records. Provenance researchers may be confronted by archives damaged through war or destruction, or the incomplete sales records from auctions houses or galleries. And occasionally artworks once forming part of a collection can become detached from that collection, thus losing their ‘identity papers’.
In addition, the variety of means of transfer may render the task more difficult. Works of art may have been transferred through sales, gifts, a trade for art supplies, inheritance or direct purchase from the artist. These transactions are not necessarily recorded in the same manner – often times, they aren’t recorded at all.
The Guide also underlines the primary importance of examining the work itself, looking for marks on the front and back, and keeping an eye out for any signs like seals, dates or changes in dimension of the work and its support. Then comes research into documentation, archives and records. Other possible indications include exhibition stickers, auction marks, dealers’ marks, as well as transport and customs stamps.
The Guide goes on to provide useful ways of furthering provenance research, such as through photographs, x-rays, lists of publications in which the work was shown, identity and contact details of previous owners and compilation of all known catalogues or publications in which the work appeared.
The Guide provides extensive lists of bibliographical and archival sources useful for provenance research. This includes, amongst many others, catalogue raisonnés databases, the Grove Dictionary of Art, biographical dictionaries, the Getty Provenance Index, the Gruyter Saur World Biographica and the Répertoire des catalogues des ventes publiques, and is the most impressive – and useful – aspect of the entire project. With its vast number of bibliographical references, the Guide will certainly become an invaluable tool for anyone looking to conduct provenance research.