Art dealer of the Avantgarde


Perspectives held on provenance research as well as expectations vary. Provenance research carried out at museums analyses those works they call their own. Traditionally, value is laid on a cultural artefact’s complete history. Provenance research at university level largely focuses on historical aspects surrounding a work’s reception. Anyone looking for a missing work of art and who would like to have it returned, tries – in keeping with the lines of such research – to find out its present location and how it can be returned to where it was originally. As appropriate, a different methodology also may need to be used. A museum that wants to research the origin of a work of art in its collection, for instance, has an important source in its hands, namely the work of art itself. There are often important clues on the work, including on the reverse, that provide the first leads for further research. This information is not available to those looking for a missing work. They do, however, have in-depth knowledge and probably sources of information about the collection to which a work once belonged that a museum cannot or does not have to know. Researchers whose prime concern is the reception of a work of art, are most probably less interested in such information. For them, statements about the work are much more relevant that have to be extracted from totally different sources and literature. To establish whether a work is an original or a fake it is advisable to pursue as many lines as possible, picking up signs along the way, to gain facts and also relevant evidence needed to confirm a work’s authenticity.

David Murray and Willibald Sauerländer on the term ‘provenance research’ and related words

“The full and systematic labelling of specimens is a matter which has of late received much attention and is carefully carried out in the best museums. The provenance of the object is not however, always recorded upon the ticket, which in many cases is a serious omission. As a rule it is of importance that the exact locality from which each specimen has been obtained should be recorded, and also in many cases the geological position of the spot. If it came from any particular collection this should be specified. This does not apply to archaeological objects alone; it is equally necessary as respects zoological, geological and other similar specimens. The date of finding or of acquisition is often likewise of importance. All these particulars and various others, such as the name and address of the donor, or of the vendor, should be recorded in the accession register, so that as far as possible the history of each specimen may be traced. The price paid should be recorded in the case of purchases. Every entry should be drafted and revised before being inserted in the register, and every ticket should be checked with the register before being issued.”

David Murray, Museums. Their History and their Use, vol. 1.,Glasgow 1904, pp. 264f.

“The necessity of establishing the location results largely from the history that works of art have had after and since their creation. Works of art, whether moveable or geographically fixed objects, were always coveted by conquerors, princes and wealthy interested parties. As a result, the holdings now found in musems in the Old and New Worlds are made up of great numbers of expropriated objects removed from the place for which they were originally made. A change of ownership is generally something that has not just happened once. A painting in the 17th century in Italy may well have fallen into the hands of an agent, found its way into the art trade further north, reappeared in the art business in North America and ultimately found its probable permanent home in one of the major museums in New York or Washington. After such an odysee, its tracks cannot always be traced back to the place of origin. Auction catalogues, inventory lists and owners’ archives have to be examined to reconstruct the path taken and to establish a picture’s pedigree, as it is called in specialist jargon. The risk of mistaken identity is always there. There are sometimes more than just one Mother and Child under an artist’s name, to say nothing of depictions of the Judgement of Paris, landscapes, still lives and conversation pieces. Identification through an entry in an old inventory always has to be followed by a question mark. On top of this, interested parties sometimes purposely cover up their tracks. The provenance of illegally exported or even stolen works of art from illicit excavations, for example, is gladly kept in the dark. Establishing the location is an attempted academic patriation. […] It is immediately obvious that even an intimate knowledge of art is of little significance in answering the question of a work’s provenance. Nobody can see that The Last Judgment by Rubens in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich came from the high altar in the Jesuit church in Neuburg an der Donau or that Madonna della Vittoria by Mantegna in the Louvre in Paris came from a chapel in Mantua. This is only something that one can know and this knowledge can only be gleaned from written records in archives, inventories, auction catalogues, travel literature and descriptions of places, sometimes also from old images. Museums are full of pictures whose original location is unknown. A huge, fundamental task still awaits researchers in this field, also with respect to later interpretations.”

Willibald Sauerländer, ‘Alterssicherung, Ortssicherung und Individualsicherung’ in Hans Belting, Heinrich Dilly, Wolfgang Kemp, Willibald Sauerländer and Martin Warnke (eds.), Kunstgeschichte. Eine Einführung, Berlin 1986, pp. 116–44, here pp. 127–32