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What is provenance? Here’s the reason why art grows in value

In his essay “Brief Notes On Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die,” Hanif Abdurraqib wrote, “Everything sounds good when you know it was the last thing a person would ever make. All the words sit more perfect on the page when they are the last words.”

Here, Abdurraqib is describing a phenomenon well known in the art world–an artist with a tragic past dies, and suddenly their work skyrockets in value. Examples of this are abundant: Van Gogh, Vermeer, and Basquiat are just among the most notable.

This phenomenon, called the “Death Effect,” albeit problematic with its ability to fetishize trauma, is one important factor in why art can grow exponentially in value. The second and arguably more important factor is a piece’s provenance.

Provenance is the official documentation tracing the actual ownership of a piece of art. If a “work” is said to have “solid provenance,” that means it is sure to not be forgery or fraud.

Recently, the art world has been struck by multiple instances in which a lack of complete provenance has deeply affected the value of some artists’ most popular works.

One of the most shocking instances came in 2017 when the International Foundation for Art Research discovered the existence of four fake Pollocks. It was their connection to a collector by the name of James Brennerman, now suspected to be a false identity, that caused IFAR to investigate.

Brennerman’s collection also consisted of multiple de Koonings, Monets, Hoppers, and Renoirs–this puts the legitimacy of all of these works under harsh speculation.

More recently, a newly discovered Da Vinci was sold for a record-breaking $450.3 million.

The piece, titled “Salvator Mundi,” disappeared from the historical record in the late 1700s and was only rediscovered as a Da Vinci in 2005 when a man named Robert Simon stumbled upon the painting during a Louisiana art auction.

Simon and two business partners carefully researched the work’s provenance. Eventually, director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, helped Simon confirm that Salvator Mundi was an original Da Vinci.

The discovery of Salvator Mundi was astonishing as only 20 known works by Da Vinci still survive.

Issues with provenance become even more tricky when it comes to the work of fraudsters. This development has most recently started to target contemporary African-American artists.

With the recent rise in demand for art by African American artists has come a wave of subsequent forgeries. However, caution on the side of art dealers also has the dangerous potential to let legitimate works go unrecognized.

Other contemporary artists that also were hit by fraudsters include Damien Hirst, who is most famous for his work “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

In a more usual turn of events, the South Korean artist Lee Ufan claimed 13 expected forgeries as his own work even though both the forger and the gallerist who was selling them admitted to them being fakes.

Obviously, the unstable nature of provenance proves to be a problem for artists and buyers even today.