Why Provenance Matters to Art Collectors – Artsy
Jul 26, 2022 10:23PM
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s recent raid of the Orlando Museum of Art showed the power of provenance, or a record of an artwork’s ownership history: According to the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant, the origin stories of 25 Jean-Michel Basquiat works, which also weren’t authenticated by his estate, didn’t check out.
Provenance, if done well, is an important part of assuring that works are authentic. In some cases—like with anything several hundreds of years old, or older—it can be a convincing way to give it that metaphorical stamp of approval.
What is provenance?
Provenance can consist of a number of documents—from historic invoices of sales between owners and galleries, to documentation in exhibition catalogues, to pictures of the art in people’s houses or photos of the work with the artist and past owners.
“It’s the foundation of trust in the art market,” said Max Kendrick, co-founder of Fairchain, a blockchain-based provenance service, in an interview with Artsy.
Can you fake provenance?
“Of course anything can be possible,” said Parisian gallerist Almine Rech when asked about forged provenance, “but it’s difficult.” She said there is usually some record of a work—even an unfinished one—in a catalogue somewhere, whether that’s from a commercial gallery, an institution, or a catalogue raisonné, whether or not it’s been finished. Especially for works from the 20th century onwards, she said, there is a good chance there will be paperwork to back up where the work has been.
While well-known artists are more likely to have provenance faked (such as Basquiat), their works have been well documented for years, and the number of works that haven’t been seen by an authentication authority, whether it’s the artist or their estate, is slim. For lesser-known artists, Rech said, not many people would be interested in forging provenance.
Provenance doesn’t just help avoid forgeries
These days, it is more important than ever to make sure that a work has been legally acquired before purchasing it. For years, the Nigerian government has been trying to have what are called the “Benin Bronzes” returned to their country after the works were looted in the late 19th century, mainly by British forces, and eventually found their way into many institutional collections.
Some museums in Germany, Scotland, and the U.S. have looked into where their works came from, and have either sent, or announced they will send, certain works back to Nigeria. The University of Aberdeen, for example, consulted its records and found that its sculpture of an Oba (king), bought at auction in 1957, had been “acquired in…reprehensible circumstances,” in the words of the university’s George Boyne. The university returned the work to Nigeria in a repatriation ceremony last fall.
In more recent history, artworks stolen during World War II, notably by the Nazis, have made provenance vital to the heirs of families who used to possess them. One of the most famous cases is that of Maria Altmann, who sued the Austrian government under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The Supreme Court found in her favor, allowing her case against the Austrian republic to go ahead, where she went into arbitration to reclaim several works by Gustav Klimt that her uncle had left to her before the Nazis stole them, and they eventually found their way into Austrian state museums.
Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, one of the Nazi-looted works eventually returned to Maria Altmann. Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York.
In that and the various cases since, documents such as old photographs of family houses or letters from distant relatives have been used to help determine who the correct owners are, even if works have made it into institutions half a century later. These sorts of problems continue to plague the art market, most notably the looting during more recent conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.
What collectors need to look for in provenance
“People don’t realize when you’re buying a work on the primary market that provenance is an issue,” Kendrick said. They only think of it decades on, or when the original collectors die and their next of kin need to figure it out, not just as a financial matter, but a sentimental one, too. Collectors now know “what is good to keep,” Rech said, but “collectors have to collect their own provenance.”
On the secondary market, collectors should be looking for a dossier with enough documents to trace the works’ whereabouts—both of its owners and its showings. They should all pass checks by experts. “If there are too many doubts,” Rech said, “it’s better to not buy the work.”
Another aspect of provenance to be aware of: It can have a sizable impact on a work’s price. “If there is not enough provenance,” Rech said, “they cannot authenticate a work,” whether that’s by an artist’s estate or by a potential buyer, which can hamper its resale price. But on the other hand, if a work has an impressive history—for instance, notable previous owners, or inclusion in seminal exhibitions—its price can go up.
Provenance in the blockchain age
The traditional routes for establishing provenance remain of key importance to collectors, but a system built on paper can be unreliable, and digital documentation may also be faked. “Technology is now well equipped to solve this provenance issue,” said Fairchain co-founder Charlie Jarvis.
Several firms, including Fairchain, Tagsmart, and Codex, help artists and galleries generate digital certificates tied to pieces of fine art. These certificates are backed by blockchain technology, which means each modification—such as change of ownership, or an artist giving their certification of authenticity—can’t be changed once entered. The technology itself is a cheap solution. Having a digital register of an artist’s works also creates a de facto catalogue raisonné, thereby strengthening the provenance of the artworks.
At a time when more and more sales are happening online—especially during the lockdowns earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic—the issue of trust has become a lot more important. With products like the digital certificates, not only can potential buyers be assured that the works they are collecting are authentic, but that they’re being bought from the actual owner. In a world where reliably verifiable provenance can be possible, hopefully fewer art scandals will be around to be made into Netflix documentaries.
In the Basque Region of Spain: Art, Culture and a Puppy That Blooms
It’s not every beach stroll that leads to a modernist masterpiece, let alone one set in the sea amid crashing waves.
After a bracing walk along the esplanade beside Ondarreta Beach in San Sebastián, Spain, I coaxed my family to keep going until we arrived at the western edge of La Concha Bay. There, anchored into the rocks and bashed by waves, was the 20th-century Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s “El Peine del Viento” (the Comb of the Wind): three nine-ton, rust-covered sculptures. They resembled monumental claws or talons reaching out, trying to connect — a potent symbol of Basque endurance over the centuries.
It was also a sign to my husband and 11-year-old twins, Freddie and Frida, that we’d be spending the weekend seeking out art in some unusual places.
With its wildly vertiginous and verdant landscape and proud heritage, the Basque region has long been a place I’ve wanted to explore with my family. So in February, we spent three crisp, sunny, culture-focused days driving from San Sebastián to Bilbao with several worthwhile stops in between.
By the second day, my kids didn’t want our adventure to end.
Driving into town earlier that day, past the grandly ornate buildings lining the final stretch of the Urumea River before it reaches the sea, Freddie declared San Sebastián “pretty cool” when he spied groups of kids carrying surfboards and heading toward the beach as they dodged fur-coat-clad shoppers hurrying along the sidewalks. With its world-renowned culinary scene, film festival and stunning natural setting on a crescent-shaped cove, San Sebastián can tick a lot of boxes for visitors with widely varying tastes. Even in February, the beach was buzzing, though only surfers in wet suits and dogs chasing sticks ventured into the water.
The city’s museums were alive with a similar mix of youthful energy and old-school European cultural appreciation. Tabakalera, a giant multipurpose art space inside a former cigarette factory, features exhibitions, film series and huge open-space lounges — some with table tennis and other amusements. It’s a place where kids can be exposed to accessible culture, but still have room to run around. There is also a vast library, a pizzeria and, on the top floor, a restaurant called LABe run by students at the Basque Culinary Center, so it can be a full-day experience.
On a rainy day, Tabakalera could be a lifesaver for a visiting family. But it was sunny during our visit, and the city’s cathedral, with its vast expanses of jewel-toned stained glass, was especially beautiful. This summer we’ll be making a trip back to San Sebastián — both to swim in that beautiful cove and to see the Lighthouse, a monumental sculpture inside a derelict lighthouse on the city’s picturesque Santa Clara Island. The Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias dug up the floor of the structure and recreated in bronze the geological features of the rock beneath it. Reached by boat, it’s only open from June through late September.
Unexpectedly, the San Telmo Museum, which we assumed would be a display of regional pride, turned out to be a highlight of our trip and, like the city itself, had something for everyone. Though one enters through a small, minimalist glass-and-concrete pavilion, the museum is built around a staggeringly beautiful Gothic monastery cloister with elaborately carved stone arches. Opening a side door to the dark and moody chapel, I was blown away to discover vast murals by one of my favorite Spanish artists, José Maria Sert, whose best-known works were sometimes painted on gold or silver leaf, and are more typically encountered in glamorous settings like Rockefeller Center or the palatial homes of wealthy clients rather than somber monastery chapels.
Around the corner were shimmering suits of armor, swords, maces and other weapons, which Frida — currently enamored of all things medieval — explained to us in all their lethal goriness.
Freddie’s most frequent question upon entering a museum is: “Do they have any cars?” Indeed, this museum did — groovy 1970s ones (along with scooters and bicycles). The vehicles highlighted the Basque region’s role in modernizing Spanish society from the 1960s to the ’80s, during the final years of the Franco dictatorship and the beginning of the country’s democracy. Going further back in time, a display of more than a dozen examples of the bizarrely elaborate 17th-century linen headwear traditionally worn by married and widowed women had Frida perplexed enough to declare (and not for the first time) that she would never marry.
At the opposite pole of this potpourri of regional art is Chillida Leku, a space dedicated to the oeuvre of just one artist, Eduardo Chillida, whose monumental sculptural works — including variations of “El Peine del Viento,” which we saw on the beach the day before — are in (or often in front of) major art museums around the world. In the 1980s, the artist purchased the property — which is near the town of Hernani on the outskirts of San Sebastián and includes a 16th-century farmhouse — to create a compendium of his works installed both indoors and outside for pastoral contemplation. And even with two kids running around the grass trying to scare each other by jumping out from behind the artist’s massive yet elementally simple steel or stone or concrete sculptures, Chillida Leku (leku means “place” in Basque) provided delicious hours of just that. I was particularly struck by the way some of the largest sculptures branched out at the top and seemed to reach for one another but never touch, like many of the ancient trees nearby.
Inside the beautifully restored stone and wood farmhouse, a gallery attendant named Anabel got us all talking about the sculptures and provided a wealth of fascinating details about the artist, such as the fact that he trained for years with the local blacksmith — which explains why some of his early works incorporate elements of farm tools.
The seaside hamlet of Getaria, about 30 minutes west of San Sebastián, may be tiny, but it gave the world two titans who changed history in one fashion or another. The first was Juan Sebastiáno Elcano, the Spanish explorer who completed the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522 after Ferdinand Magellan was killed midvoyage in what is now the Philippines. He made it back to Spain after some 1,200 days at sea, returning with just one ship and only 19 men (five ships and some 265 crewmen departed Spain in 1519). He is a celebrated hero in his homeland, but is largely unknown outside Spain, where credit for the voyage goes almost entirely to Magellan.
In contrast, Getaria’s other native son has a name that is known far and wide and has become a global brand. Cristóbal Balenciaga — the couturier whom Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and other designers considered, in Dior’s words, “the master of us all” — was born here to a local fisherman and a seamstress in 1895. By his teens, he had clients among the Spanish nobility and eventually the royal family. He moved to Paris during the Spanish Civil War, where his talent and list of clients became legendary.
To great fanfare, the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum opened in Getaria (in the former palace of his most ardent early client) in 2011, bringing the rarefied world of haute couture to this quaint village. Many of the stunning dresses on display were donated by the likes of Princess Grace of Monaco; the American philanthropist Rachel Mellon, known as Bunny; Balenciaga’s friend and protégé, Hubert de Givenchy; and other beau monde figures. It’s a fun romp for kids through the dimly lit galleries of fanciful clothing from a different age. This year’s exhibition, “Balenciaga Character,” focuses on the essence of his designs and what made them so innovative and beautiful that other designers felt almost obligated to follow his lead for decades.
How many UNESCO World Heritage sites allow you to drive your car on them? Heading farther west from Getaria, we bypassed downtown Bilbao and went straight to Las Arenas, the posh seaside enclave where the Nervión River meets the Bay of Biscay. Our goal was to see (and use) the Vizcaya Bridge, a pioneering type of suspension bridge built in 1893 and recognized by UNESCO in 2006. It was designed by Alberto de Palacio y Elissagüe (who also designed the iconic Atocha rail station in Madrid). The brief was to create a link between the towns of Guecho and Portugalete on opposite sides of the river without impeding the shipping traffic that was crucial to Bilbao’s booming steel industry. Palacio’s novel design was not a roadway but a suspended gondola that today shuttles about eight cars and a fair number of pedestrians across the river in one minute — as thrilling for my husband and me as it was for the kids. The deck supporting the gondola is more than 150 feet above the water, so even today’s tankers, aircraft carriers and a few airplanes have managed to get under it.
Back when it opened, there were set fares for pigs, cattle and funerals — today it’s just cars, scooters, bikes and pedestrians (1 euro, or a little over a $1, round-trip for pedestrians). As we approached the soaring tower on the Portugalete side of the river, Freddie squeezed my hand and said, “This is the best day ever” — words he also uttered amid the giant redwoods of the Sequoia National Park in California.
Ever since the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao opened in 1997, the city has occupied an important perch on the European cultural travel circuit. Many kids will go bonkers over the giant floral puppy, a large petunia-based sculpture by Jeff Koons that stands in front of the museum. If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll want to know about the nearby “water park,” a fountain with variable jets of water spouting from the ground, where children and adults can cool off in the midday heat.
Whatever exhibitions are on view (until May 28, there’s a beautiful Joan Miró painting exhibition focused on the artist’s early years in Paris), a ride up the glass elevators in Gehry’s torquey, bendy central lobby is enough to satisfy most kids. Do not miss the long gallery of monumental spiral sculptures by Richard Serra; exploring the mazelike spaces created by the circular steel walls is, I’ve found, a home run for children.
By the time we got to Bilbao’s maritime museum, Itsasmuseum, we were pretty exhausted, and I told the ticket seller we’d be in and out in 30 minutes. In the end, the guards had to move us out at closing time as we were so engaged with the displays of antique model ships and paintings of historic shipwrecks. There are also more modern exhibitions about surf culture and the role of the river and the sea in Bilbao’s development, as well as what’s being done in the city to adapt to global warming and preserve the ecosystem that’s been its lifeblood. In warmer weather, a small dry dock in front of the museum allows visitors to explore various types of vessels in use on the city’s waterways.
Like San Sebastián, Bilbao has its own vast multipurpose cultural center in the Azkuna Zentroa Alhóndiga, a former wine and olive oil warehouse that sat empty for 30 years until the architect Philippe Starck reimagined it as a library, exhibition space and gym, where there are two indoor pools on the roof that anyone can visit for a few euros per day.
And splashing around in pools designed by Mr. Starck — one of which has a glass floor that looks down on the galleries below — counts as a cultural activity, no matter your age.
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Italian art experts astonished by David statue uproar in Florida
The Florence museum that houses Michelangelo’s statue of David has invited teachers and students from a Florida school to visit, after an uproar over an art lesson.
The school’s principal quit after a complaint about a sixth-grade art class that included an image of the statue.
A parent had complained the image was pornographic.
She said the principal should be “rewarded, not punished”.
“Talking about the Renaissance without showing the David, an undisputed icon of art and culture and of that historical period, would make no sense,” Ms Hollberg said.
The controversy began when the board of Tallahassee Classical School – a charter school in Florida’s state capital – pressured principal Hope Carrasquilla to resign after three parents complained about a lesson that included a photo of the 17ft nude marble statue.
The statue, one of the most famous in Western history, depicts the biblical David going to fight Goliath armed only with a sling and his faith in God.
The board reportedly targeted Ms Carrasquilla because the parents claimed they weren’t notified in advance that a nude would be shown, with one parent calling the statue “pornographic”.
The incident has left Florentines and experts on Renaissance art bewildered.
The David is considered a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance and a symbol of humanist values. It has been displayed in the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873.
Ms Hollberg said she was “astonished”, stating that to think that the David statue could be considered pornographic means not only failing to understand the Bible, but Western culture itself.
“I cannot believe that actually happened, at first I thought it was fake news, so improbable and absurd was it,” she said.
“A distinction must be made between nudity and pornography. There is nothing pornographic or aggressive about the David, he is a young boy, a shepherd, who even according to the Bible did not have ostentatious clothes but wanted to defend his people with what he had.”
The mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, also invited the teacher who showed the students the image of Michelangelo’s David to visit the city and its works of art.
“Mistaking art for pornography is simply ridiculous,” he tweeted. “Art is civilisation and those who teach it deserve respect.”
In an interview with Slate online magazine, Barney Bishop, chairman of the school board, said that last year the principal sent a notice to parents warning them that students were going to see Michelangelo’s David, but this wasn’t done this year.
He called it an “egregious mistake” and said that “parents are entitled to know anytime their child is being taught a controversial topic and picture”.
According to Florentine art historian and dean of the University for Foreigners in Siena, Tomaso Montanari, such an attitude is “disconcerting”.
“First comes the dismay at the absence of educational freedom, as it should not be restricted or manipulated by families,” Mr Montanari said.
“On the other hand, from a cultural perspective, the Western world has a tendency to associate fundamentalism and censorship with other societies, believing it possesses the capability to spread democratic ideals worldwide.
“But this cultural backsliding clearly highlights the presence of fundamentalist views within the West as well.”
While several parents and teachers plan to protest Ms Carrasquilla’s resignation at the school board meeting, she isn’t sure she would take the job back even if it were offered.
“There’s been such controversy and such upheaval,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I would really have to consider, ‘Is this truly what is best?'”
Back in Florence, Ms Hollberg remarked: “From majestic statues to charming fountains and paintings, Italy is overflowing with works of art, not just in its museums, but in all its cities, squares and streets, with some featuring naked figures.
“Does that make it pornography? Should entire cities be shut down because of the artistic depictions of the human form?”
Sotheby’s Sale of Glitch Art Postponed After Artists Complain About All-Male Sale
Sotheby’s paused its “Glitch-ism” auction Sunday, days after its March 24 launch, after prominent glitch artists pointed out that the auction, held by Sotheby’s digital art marketplace Metaverse, didn’t have a single woman artist represented.
“Sotheby’s is pausing Natively Digital: Glitch-ism to redress the imbalance in representation within the sale, and will relaunch with a more equitable and diverse group of artists at a later date,” read a Tweet by Sotheby’s Metaverse published Sunday.
Artist Patrick Amadon announced Sunday on Twitter that he was pulling his artwork from the sale in “solidarity” with female and queer glitch artists. He was the only artist to do so.
A part of Sotheby’s recurring Natively Digital sale, “Glitch-ism” was supposed to be a historic moment for “glitch art,” which hasn’t been represented in a major auction before. Glitch art defines an interest in the aesthetic, poetic, and political suggestions represented by the glitch, from eruptions of static to “deep fried,” pixelated video.
The “glitch,” as the representation of a failure, and the opportunities and slippage that can entail, has attracted many female and queer artists, including, for example, curator Legacy Russell, whose book Glitch Feminism introduced audiences to the feminist connection to the medium when it was released in 2020.
“To have an all-male show in 2023 seems entirely out of tune. But to do this in to the glitch genre is just whack,” Rosa Menkman, a glitch artist, told ARTnews.
Menkman noticed that one of her works was being used in the auction’s description of the history of glitch art, in which Menkman was credited not only for her pioneering work in the field, but also for her theorization. While Sotheby’s recognized her contributions, the auction house didn’t include her. What really bothered Menkman, however, wasn’t her own exclusion, but a lack of historical awareness about glitch art as a movement molded since its inception by female and queer artists.
“I don’t believe an auction house needs to define a genre, nor its aesthetic or its genealogies. But, like any institution, they need to take some responsibilities and show a certain level of care.” said Menkman “If they don’t – it’s bad for everything including their own credibility,
Davis Brown, a Sotheby’s pre-sale coordinator who organizedd the sale, reached out to glitch experts like Dawnia Darkstone to get more background research on the genre and recommendations for artists that would be a good fit. In a series of emails that Darkstone published on Twitter Sunday, Darkstone made clear to Brown that she would love to consult on the show, just not for free. Brown was apparently not interested.
“I was quite irritated with them for asking for my consultation without compensation, but when I opened the sales page and saw Rosa Menkman’s work front and center I was still excited,” Darkstone told ARTnews. Then she realized that neither Menkman nor any other female or queer artists had been included. “That felt like a slap in the face,” she sadded.
As conversation about the show heated up online, Amadon, who who recently had a work censored in Hong Kong, caught wind and decided to pull out.
“It just didn’t feel right participating in the show and I wanted to be in solidarity with female and nonbinary glitch artists,” Amadon told ARTnews. “I’m very aware that [being excluded from] sales can perpetuate a cycle in which people who are deserving of representation get cut out, because sales create their own momentum.”
Menkman and Darkstone said that they have since been contacted by Sotheby’s with tentative offers to participate in the show as an artist and curator respectively. Darkstone said the outcome was an exciting result from a moment of protest.
“I feel cautiously optimistic,” said Darkstone. “I think it shows that art communities coming together and speaking out against injustice can really make a difference.”
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