As you have surely figured out from my past posts, provenance research often requires a great deal of creativity. While auction records, catalogues raisonnés, archival collections, WWII provenance research databases, dealer records, and so on are typically your first steps when delving into a provenance, your research may not (or, sometimes, should not) end there. Quite often, your research takes you beyond the typical art historical provenance resources on a path that can be confusing, unpredictable, and unfamiliar – and that’s what makes provenance research so exciting and, hopefully, rewarding.
Here is just a sampling of some of the outside-of-the-box steps I’ve taken to trace a work of art’s past whereabouts:
- To determine when a work of art came into the United Sates, I tracked down the son of a deceased owner of a shuttered art shipping company and called him to inquire whether the company had any extant records.
- I suspected that a Hungarian family – who founded a lighting company that was later bought by GE – owned a painting, and so I spoke with GE archivists and historians of electrical engineering around the world to gather information about the family and their collection.
- I requested (from various courts) and reviewed the wills of several generations of several families to search for references to a particular painting.
- Because a specific painting may have been sold along with the house in which it hung, I searched New York City directories across several decades to identify the succession of owners of a particular house in Manhattan.
- The painting I was researching was photographed by an American photographer at some point in the 1940s-60s, so I consulted the records of the photographer to determine, based on the negative number, when the photograph had been taken in order to isolate the year by which the painting was in the United States.
- I determined that a painting’s provenance had been confused and conflated with that of another painting, so, I researched the other painting’s provenance to sort out what should and should not belong in which provenance.
- To determine whether the painting in question (depicting men playing cards) and another painting, listed in an auction catalogue, were one and the same, I researched French slang terms for card games.
- I have searched for photographs of prominent collectors’ homes to see if the painting being researched is visible.
- When only a misspelled or partial name is available, Google is your best friend.
- When a vague note in a catalogue raisonné mentioned that a painting was formerly accompanied by an unusual framing device, I researched possible past dealers/owners to see if any were known for using atypical frames on works in their stock/collections.
- I have located and called descendants of suspected former owners to ask them whether they recall seeing the works of art in their family’s possession.