When you think of electronic provenance research tools, auction record databases, digitized archival collections, databases of looted art, and indexes of collectors and collections are the types of resources that typically come to mind. Of course, all of these tools are indispensable to my research and I use at least one of them almost every day. But a perhaps less obvious but just as useful provenance tool is, of all things, Google.
There are many uses for Google when it comes to conducting provenance research. In this post I’ll just touch on a few – hopefully enough to encourage anyone reading this to think a bit more outside of the research box when investigating provenances.
Sometimes just a Google search itself can yield answers: a questionable spelling of a name in a provenance may lead nowhere in lists of collectors and in auction records, but if you Google the name, sometimes auto-correct/-complete transforms it into a different name, and, if you’re lucky, the correct one.
One particularly unexpected use for Google is that it can serve as a totally unofficial, somewhat universal provenance “database.” That sounds kind of ridiculous, but what I mean is this: there are currently no databases that index provenance information for art objects in collections (or wherever) throughout the world. Of course, there are auction databases, sales databases for Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and numerous museums have searchable provenances on their sites. But nothing exists that allows you to search everything – or at least, every provenance posted online. Well, Google comes closest. Sure, when you type in the name of a collector you’ll get many, many results that are irrelevant to your particular object or have nothing to do with provenance. But over time, you pick up on the keywords to include and those to omit (by typing a minus sign in the search box prior to the term you want omitted) that narrow your search enough to lead you to what you’re looking for. Google is particularly helpful when you have two names that may or may not exist together in a particular provenance: by Googling them in conjunction with one another you may be able to find additional provenances that have both names, which in turn allows you to consider whether the object you’re researching may have taken a similar path.
A Google search also brings up results from Google Books and Archive.org, effectively browsing thousands of books and periodicals for you and jumping right to your search terms. One example of how this was super useful for me: I was looking for past auction appearances of a painting for which I had very little certain early provenance. When I Googled the artist’s name and one of the possible titles of the painting, a Google Books result came up that listed the artist/painting title in a periodical from 1848 that included auction listings. This auction did not have a published catalogue, which is why it had never come up in the typical auction records resources (Getty Provenance Index, SCIPIO, etc. ). While there is still some uncertainty as to whether the painting mentioned in the 1848 publication is in fact the painting I was researching, at the very least I now have a new lead and a new avenue of research.
So next time you’ve got a tricky and/or convoluted provenance to investigate, after – or even before – heading to the usual resources, give Google a chance to help you out; you may be pleasantly surprised at the discoveries you make.