All About Provenance

“Provenance establishes the history of ownership. Not authenticity. But a good provenance certainly supports authentication, removes all doubt towards the legitimacy of ownership, whilst eliminating disputes and claim towards the work once sold.

On the contrary, if an artwork is authentic, nothing can take away the genuineness even when no documents ever existed. Not even provenance. Genuine works of this nature just happens to hover on a different plane because of unexpected turn of events or otherwise beit relocation, war, death, spring cleaning, debt settlement, divorce, gifts, donations, even hunger, as they fall into the hands of cafe owners, descendants, friends, undeserving people, neighbours, strangers, cleaners, movers, antique shops, flea market, pawn shops or the worse case scenario, refuse bins! With no receipts, papers, or even a signature intact, should authentic works of this nature be appraised at a lower price?

Provenance is a Western invention. It is the trailing bloodline of every personal property since the day the object leaves the hand of its creator beit the artist, craftsmen or artisan till the present owner. With more claims of stolen items being sold at auctions at frivolous prices, provenance became a necessity deterrent from costly lawsuits, and a convenient tool to reject dubious consignments. Nowadays, it behaves as a stop valve to deter ‘blockage’. A term appraisers use when too many items of similar nature flock the market causing the value of a personal property once thought rare, but now ubiquitous, to fall. In instances like this, should provenance be abused to control the flow thus preventing blockage from happening?

But if provenance is vital, how could one Chinese ceramic found in a shoebox, and another, which was used as a door stopper, escape this stringent necessity? By pure reasoning, it is certainly doubtful that accidental possessions and unexpected finds like these do have papers to back them up. This includes the controversial possession of two zodiac animal busts that once grace the walls of the Forbidden City in China. Why, one wonders, that the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 does not apply to consignments such as these, when war spoils should be repatriated accordingly?

Many reasons could be factored in but one seemingly good reason why reputed auction houses are prepared to take chances by breaking conventions is the quality exuded by an irresistible find. Hence, it goes without saying that no matter what, provenance no matter how muzzy it is, cannot take away the authenticity or genuineness of a property, more so when no report of theft was ever recorded, which begs the question: “How should one keeps track of cultural relics and papers and address the grey areas of provenance, when for example the Cultural Revolution of China 1966 displaces everything? Even real estate title deeds. Wouldn’t this imply that all Chinese relics are in-consignable? And if that being the case, wouldn’t the Western collector indirectly has more to benefit in the auction circuit than their Eastern counterparts?

Since early 2000 as auction records would have shown, the demand for Chinese cultural relics soared a million times over. The downside being so did their bad debts reach an unprecedented scale. The reason is because some Chinese sellers view provenance as double standard Western capitalism designed to subdue Chinese consignors. Hence their retaliation by not paying. This triggers a series of revamps implemented for would-be bidders never seen in auction rules before to curb the frequent fraudulent bid calls. But not long after, the Chinese Central Committee decided to set up their own auction houses, after some unsuccessful attempts to buyout some reputed auction platforms. Not one but a few.

Besides these concerns, there are scenarios of consignors owning the right papers, but sold duplicated artworks to unsuspecting buyers sometimes with the original papers, at times without~ the original work of which they still keep. There too are cases of genuine artworks without the necessary papers being mistakenly rejected as dubious. Incidents like this happens frequently at auction houses, especially those which lacks expertise. At the other end of the spectrum are consignors with underworld links whose lawless reputation exceeds the genuineness of their provenance. And there are also the uninformed collectors who seem to invest more in dubious artworks, that when their collection is assessed as a whole, cautious auction houses will shun away as quickly. Last but not least are cases where dubious artworks by famous artists and forgeries appears in open auctions, as favours to appease their high-powered buyers. Cases like this are not one-of-a-kind but ubiquitous. What is more beguiling is can dubious artworks possesses genuine provenance then escape close scrutiny? Think about it.

In most cases, properties that fetches record prices has an important personality or impeccable history of ownership attached to it. These personalities simply overshadow the long trail of provenance required. So much so that it has become the norm for auction houses of repute to turn away those which do not have. But does that mean that collections coming from important personalities or collectors are always genuine? The answer is a resounding no. Because every collector, no matter how experienced they are, is vulnerable to deception. More so when they lack knowledge in their field of interest, more frequently occurring in the early stages of collecting.

Many a time, good properties has been rejected by reputed auction houses because provenance could not be established. This is indeed sad for genuine collectors who turns their hobby into a lucrative investment that each time they spotted a valuable piece going for a song at the flea market, they need to request for formal papers. Wouldn’t that raise eyebrows when sometimes, the asking price is merely USD10? Moreover, what kind of provenance and lineage does one expect from a country which has only gained independence for slightly more than a decade? Or another that survives a Holocaust or a cultural revolution? A string of DNA’s or atoms to backtrace your fossil collection?

Imagine a genuine Picasso or a Pollock not previously known which has no provenance. Will the auction house reject it and regard it as fraud just because no evidence of its existence was ever recorded in the catalogue raisonnè nor the stolen objects databases? Or will they report it so that the possessor is arrested? Or would they set forth an ingenious marketing strategy to have it sold because of the high estimate it could fetch? It is well known that the latter does happen to some blue collar consignors who uses their lifetime savings to build their collection. That will again depends if their engagement is convincing enough that these auction houses would stick out their neck to help them.

The story about provenance is long and wide. With many twists and turns. To those who aren’t aware, perhaps this is the time to pay heed to the propensity of tracking down provenance. If possible, to backtrack it till it hits the date of origin of produce or manufacture. If they want to have it consigned in the future that is. But in their own way, auction houses protect their own integrity by screening and investigating each and every property they intend to accept. Because they understand that costly mistakes can seriously damage their reputation. Especially the provenance tied to these properties. Good auction houses also constantly refine their method and mode of working to ensure staff integrity to ward off malicious deals schemed by greedy collectors wanting to dispose off their doubtful loots.

Recently there were two cases of properties fetching ludicrously high prices, many times higher than the low estimate being sold online. One is of a Chinese Republican type vase of very poor condition, the other, a Song dynasty censer of doubtful attribution. How does this happen one wonders? Although money laundering seems to be the obvious reason, scammers of today are now getting more creative than ever before, scouting for loopholes in the terms and conditions of selling platforms to thrive, and if all auction houses carries with them disclaimers, then, so much the better for scammers to roll out vague deals, then disappear by the click of a button. Because of voluminous listings, most auction platforms have no control over fraudulent claims, auction estimates, and provenance especially – the hammer price of which still relies very much on the bidders discretion and direct engagement with the seller at the other end. Provenance? They disappeared into the backseat. Online auction platforms in general are commission agents. Not authenticators doing you a service. They provide you with an avenue to dispose your possessions. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Now the final question. Are there categories of properties that doesn’t require provenance? Yes there are. Maybe if one is tired of trailing provenance, they should perhaps collect something else that doesn’t require them. Think about it.

– Kris Lee 2014/2021.
Appraiser/Auctioneer/Collector of art, antiques and collectibles with more than 3 decades of