The Provenance of Provenance
For many, provenance is a foreign term, frequently (and ironically) confused with the Provence region of France. But if you’ve ever heard the story of a rediscovered work of art, a classic car with a famous owner, or a counterfeit bottle of expensive wine, you already understand the importance of provenance.
Provenance is just knowing where something came from. You might even recognize the veni in its Latin form, provenire, as the “veni” in Julius Caesar’s famous “veni, vidi, vici.” So, while provenance is the technical term, you can substitute “origin” or “lineage” in most conversations.
Historically, provenance has been most famously applied in the context of art. In the world of art, honest mistakes and malicious forgeries have resulted in many famous stories of long-lost masterworks or fortunes ill-gotten. And after World War II, the colossal scale of appropriation on the European continent still echoes in auctions houses and private sales. Today, there are thousands of people employed around the world focused solely on provenance of works of art.
In art, we can simplify provenance as answering two questions:
- Who created the work?
- Does the current possessor have the right to transfer?
In theory, answering the legal conveyance question – question #2 – seems like the same thing as the authorship question – question #1. Ideally, you’d prove that all prior transfers were clean, including from the creator originally. But unlike other forms of conveyance we might be used to, like stock certificates or real property, many works of art have much longer, less-documented, and sometimes informal histories.
At this point, our discussion of title and real property might have clued you on to a very similar context – real estate. Anyone who has bought or sold real estate, especially if financed, knows that title insurance and real property deeds are typically key to close. This process – of proving the chain of legal ownership of a parcel – is conceptually identical to provenance in art.