Every work of art has a story to tell, whether it is of the artist’s motivations and intentions or the hands through which it has passed. It is the story and life of artworks that have the power to determine their fate on the market.
A detailed and nuanced ownership history can increase price. Gaps in the past also have the potential to brand certain works “unsalable” particularly as they relate to Holocaust-era assets or conflict antiquities.
Owning such works of art can eventually lead to seizure (in certain locations, like New York City) or legal disputes. Even fakes and forgeries cannot be removed from this equation.
When buying art from reputable sources, we believe in the idea of good faith. We trust where our art comes from, believing that the corroboration of past auction catalogues or catalogue raisonnés are the hallmarks of due diligence, that they are enough to sustain our good faith.
How many other types of investments rely so heavily on good faith? Most of us would not purchase property without running a title search and organising an inspection. When making such large investments, we want to ensure that there are no unforeseen damages or eventualities that will obstruct the purchase or duration of ownership.
Whether or not one is buying for aesthetics or investments, the same standards should hold true for buying art.
The Importance of Provenance Research & Due Diligence
To best mitigate risk or loss of potential investment, every aspect of an artwork should be explored before each transfer of ownership or public display. In the age of digitisation, new provenance information is continually emerging. Sources in print, such as catalogue raisonnés, can quickly be rendered incorrect. Such information has the power to alter the perception of an artwork’s clean title or authenticity within the market.
With these pitfalls in mind, the art world is accustomed to cases arising from artworks that have been traversing the market for years, purchased on good faith, that became embroiled in legal disputes. A notable example is that of the Knoedler & Co. scandal that shuttered one of New York City’s oldest galleries.
From 1994 – 2001, Knoedler Gallery purchased and resold dozens of fake artworks to their clients. According to Daria Price’s 2019 documentary, Driven to Abstraction, Knoedler acquired the works from an unknown dealer, Glafira Rosales, who claimed her anonymous client had purchased almost all artworks directly from the artists and thus did not possess any documentation whatsoever. These “newly discovered” works were originally attributed to blue-chip artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, among others.
Once in the hands of Knoedler Gallery, the artworks were displayed and resold, again without documentation, but with the 165-year reputation of Knoedler & Co. to support their authenticity and provenance. As such, the total profit for these sales amounted to tens of millions of dollars.
It was not until a series of experts and collectors questioned the provenance and the physical attributes of these artworks that the conspiracy was revealed and lawsuits were filed.
As of August 2019, ten cases were filed against the gallery and settled. In the face of the Knoedler case, we must ponder how many artworks sold through reputable sources remain on the market, hanging on walls, changing hands, without reliable documentation, putting collections at risk.
Benefits of Cataloguing
Even if there is no direct threat of legal disputes or financial loss, knowing and compiling a comprehensive record for each artwork adds an extra layer of security to collections. Minimal gaps in ownership history accompanied by detailed documentation reduce an owner’s risk within the art market.
When combined, documentation and provenance can increase an artwork’s value, aid with purchasing insurance, and even facilitate appraisals, loans, donations, or estate planning.
Cataloguing this information within a single format, such as a personally configured database, enables collectors to easily transmit dossiers for an individual work or an entire collection. It streamlines the due diligence process for later use.
For example, documented evidence of Holocaust-era restitution reflected in provenance often increases market value. Such provenance documentation offers buyers definitive, clear title. At the same time, it is generally accepted that works previously owned by famous collectors or public figures sell for considerably higher than their counterparts.
This assertion is illustrated through the recent Holocaust-era restitution case of a 1903 pastel drawing by Pablo Picasso entitled Head of Woman. The aforementioned drawing was donated to Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art in 2001.
In the face of considerable evidence of a forced sale, the museum transferred ownership to the heirs of German-Jewish banker, Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, in early April 2020. A week later, Larry Gagosian was privately offering the drawing for sale with an asking price of $10 million (USD). Such a price is significantly higher than that of comparable drawings from Picasso’s Blue Period.
A $10 million (USD) valuation becomes an attainable sale price in direct response to the readily available documentation and history associated with the drawing. Condition and market demand continue to play their part.
However, the NGA’s transfer of ownership reflects a “just and fair solution” for Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s heirs while previous ownership by Justin K. Thannhauser, the famous German-Jewish dealer, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation illustrates a degree of celebrity provenance.
Holocaust-era assets and high-profile scandals do not permeate all collections. Rather, such cases exemplify the benefits of thoroughly preserving the history of your artworks as well as the pitfalls that accompany traversing the art market with undocumented artworks.
Whether an artwork has an estimated sale price of $15,000 or $15 million., with the right evidence, or lack thereof, cases can become viable. Questions of clear title or authenticity can emerge at any time, tainting a work and making it unsalable until the question mark over its history is erased, even if it was purchased on good faith.
After his unprecedented purchase of Paul Cèzanne’s Le garçon au gilet rouge (1888-1890), philanthropist Paul Mellon posited, “You stand in front of a picture like that, and what is money?”
With this quote, the famous collector aptly expressed the difficulties of mixing financial investments with aesthetic interests. Provenance research and cataloguing enable artworks to remain the unimpeded objects of desire.
Christie’s Auction Results. Accessed 15 April 2020, URL.
Dafoe, Taylor. “The National Gallery Restituted a Picasso to a Jewish Banker’s Heirs Last Week. This Week Gagosian is Already Offering It for $10 Million.” Artnet News, 6 April 2020, URL.
Driven to Abstraction. Directed by Daria Price. Daria Price, 2019. Film Screening, 19 February 2020.
Hook, Philip. “The Lure of Impressionism for the newly rich.” Financial Times, 30 January 2009, URL.
Kinsella, Eileen. “The Final Knoedler Forgery Lawsuit, Over a $5.5 Million Fake Rothko, Has Been Settled, Closing the Book on a Sordid Drama.” Artnet News, 28 August 2019, URL.
Shnayerson, Michael. “The Knoedler’s Meltdown: Inside the Forgery Scandal and Federal Investigations.” Vanity Fair, 6 April 2012, URL
Sotheby’s Past Lot Archive. Accessed 15 April 2020, URL.
Aubrey Catrone is an international art historian, appraiser, provenance researcher, and specialist in collection cataloguing.
Aubrey earned an MA in History of Art from University College London, specialising in the documented histories of art objects. With an art gallery and academic research background, her clients include art advisories, private collectors, art finance firms, lawyers, wealth managers, non-profits, and academics.
These projects comprise paintings, works on paper, prints, and sculptures spanning the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries A.D.
For further information about provenance research or collections cataloguing, please contact [email protected]