Monday, July 25, 2022

Provenance Research


Getting Started with Provenance Research


Why should you care about provenance?

Provenance is the history of the whereabouts of an object. A provenance may include names of people, families, companies, estates, museums or other institutions, galleries, dealers and corresponding locations and dates of those contacts.

It is rare that a provenance is complete and there are often gaps if the object is over 250 years old or if it was in Europe during WWII. Since there has never been a standardized title registry in the art world, there is a cloud set over the art market which results in transaction risks. The passage of an object from one contact to another may not have been completed legally.


What is due diligence in the art world?

Due diligence in the art world is researching to the best of ability to find and collect documentation related to an object. This may include searching art loss databases and archives or reviewing current laws and legislation currently in place that might protect certain objects from being exchanged in the market.

This due diligence research process could potentially highlight problematic past transactions. If problems are discovered, completing the purchase should be avoided.


We have listed here a few key resources to get started with provenance research—all free and available to the public.


General Provenance Research

WorldCat is a library catalog that connects to over 10,000 libraries worldwide. A few of the more pertinent resources for provenance research found in WorldCat include catalogue raisonnés and exhibition catalogs. A catalogue raisonné is often written by an expert on a specific artist and outlines the entire body of work by that artist. Each listing includes basic facts about the object including provenance. Exhibition catalogs document whether an object was included in an exhibition at a gallery or museum.  

IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, has a database of every artist catalogue raisonné ever published and currently in production. The catalogue raisonné database is searchable by artist name. IFAR also has a Provenance Guide, which is 22 pages of guidelines and resources that can be used for provenance research.



FBI National Stolen Art File is a starting point for investigating whether an object has been listed as stolen. Users can search by title, maker, period, description or object type. Law enforcement agencies in both the United States and abroad may submit objects to be listed in the database. is Germany's lost art database which is sponsored by the German Lost Art Foundation, a section of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. The database specializes in cultural objects that were lost due to Nazi persecution during WWII. The database accepts reports of objects that are missing as well as reports of found objects that are thought to have gone missing as a result of WWII. The search function on this database is advanced and has over ten search fields available.


Archives are original historical papers that contain documentation about people and objects. Archives of American ArtThe Frick Center for the History of Collecting and The Getty Research Institute are all sources for archives surrounding art and collectibles.

PHAROS International Consortium of Photo Archives was developed in the last few years and is a collaboration between 14 European and North American art historical photo archives and contains tens of millions of images documenting provenance and attribution, conservation research, exhibition research, publication history, the history of photography, and the history of art history.  

Papers of artists, collectors, dealers and galleries are being digitized more and may be accessible online. Archives in Europe are more challenging to access, but finding aids are usually available, which list the contents of the archives. A finding aid may list for example that the archive contains a letter between two people such as an artist and a dealer.

If the archival material is not digitized, it may be worth contacting the archive directly to find out if a researcher can pull the material and send it, even if there is a small cost associated with the service.

And, as a collector, you can contribute to the future preserved legacy of the artwork by conducting good archival habits. Consider uploading the key information and documents pertaining to your artworks in a collection management system like Artwork Archive.


Auction Records 

Sales databases can be searched for free on individual auction sites, although they are a bit limiting in the years of data provided. General sites like artnet and artprice require a paid subscription and Invaluable and artvalue are searchable for free but provide limited data. Some of these general auction sites provide data from large and small auction houses globally.

Auction records provide provenance, although it is rarely conclusive. Auction houses typically highlight major past collections that the object has been included in and rarely include intermediaries such as dealers in the provenance. Hard copies of auction catalogs may also be found on WorldCat or through The Frick.


Cultural Property

Each country in the world has different laws pertaining to cultural property. Upon confirming an object's origins, research may be done on that country's cultural property laws by visiting its government website.

Specific laws are in place to protect cultural heritage. For example, NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) is a United States Federal Act that was established in 1990 to legally require institutions that have acquired culturally significant objects including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to return those objects to Native American groups.

ICOM (International Council of Museums) has a Red Lists database which list countries and lists of red-flagged objects that are designated as cultural property and should be returned to the source country.


Due Diligence Process

The due diligence process varies depending on the object and the transaction. This is a general guide to get you started.

  1. Inspect the front and back of the object. On the front, note any inscriptions or markings. Take a zoomed-in photograph of any inscriptions including a signature. Inspect the back of the object and take photos of labels or other markings. If working with an object that is not available for in-person inspection, ensure that detailed images are available for review.

  2. Read through all of the information in hand on the object.

  3. Write out what is known in detail. This summary will include any known data and any information or stories relayed by a person (maybe a potential donor or seller of the object).

  4. Create a timeline. Include any contacts who have allegedly been in possession of the object, exhibitions, import/export data and any known transfers. Incorporate into the timeline any dated laws that might affect the transfer of the object to different countries. The timeline should be as detailed as possible.

  5. It is rare that a researcher will have a complete provenance. Highlight where the gaps or questionable transfers in the provenance occur.

  6. Start research. Cross check any found information, especially in secondary sources. Research the gaps to see if they can be filled in.

  7. Write a summary of findings, highlighting red flags if any. These can include red flag people, laws or any other questionable transfers of the object.

When doing provenance research, it is important to cross-check any information found because resources can be incorrect or even forged.

Also, provenance is not the equivalent to legal ownership. Provenance is the history of the whereabouts of the object and may not necessarily align with legal title.


If you hit a dead end

Researchers will often come across the dreaded "private collection" listing in a provenance. The art market is unregulated, and collectors are not obligated to reveal ownership of art or collectibles. With deeper research, the private collection or a gap can sometimes be found, but hitting a roadblock is bound to happen. Assistance from a historian who specializes in specific types of objects or time periods may be helpful at this point.

strategies to solve any problem


Try these 5 supremely simple strategies to solve any problem from disagreements to projects

Good puzzlers don’t fall in love with their hypotheses. They keep their beliefs provisional, open to new evidence. They embrace the eraser and delete key.

Try these 5 supremely simple strategies to solve any problem from disagreements to projects
[Photo: Diva Plavalaguna/Pexels]

A. J. Jacobs is an editor for Esquire. As a journalist and author, he is known for putting himself in the role of test subject as he embarks on various lifestyle investigations.

Below, Jacobs shares five key insights from his new book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of LifeListen to the audio version—read by Jacobs himself—in the Next Big Idea App.


When confronting a problem, it’s easy to get angry and frustrated. But anger is counterproductive to creative solutions—you get tunnel vision. Instead, I recommend the Puzzler Mindset. This is a mindset of deep curiosity and reframing life’s problems and annoyances as puzzles.

The legendary music producer Quincy Jones has a saying: “I don’t have problems. I have puzzles.” I love this quote. I want a tattoo of it on my forehead because it’s the perfect encapsulation of the Puzzler Mindset. When I look at life and business as a series of puzzles instead of problems, I’m both more productive and happier because problems are fear-inducing and intractable. Puzzles are solvable, motivating, and engage your creative and playful side.

For instance, if I’m talking to someone who disagrees with me—about business strategy, politics, or whatever—I could try berating them into changing their mind. That rarely works. In fact, it’s often counterproductive. Instead, treat it like a puzzle. What do we really disagree on? Why do I believe what I believe? Is there any evidence that could change one of our minds? Is there common ground? All of these are puzzles, and pursuing their answers is a more likely way to produce a productive solution.


One of the best strategies for any puzzle is chopping the big puzzle into a series of smaller puzzles. Consider the genre of puzzles called Fermi problems, a type of logic problem that Google and Microsoft famously ask at some job interviews.

A typical Fermi problem goes like this: “How many piano tuners are there in New York City?” You have to estimate the size of something about which you are totally ignorant. David Epstein talks about how to solve Fermi problems in his book Range. If you take a wild, off-the-cuff guess, you’ll probably be wrong by orders of magnitude.

Instead, break it down. As Epstein writes: “How many households are in New York? What portion might have pianos? How often are pianos tuned? How many homes can one tuner reach in a day? How many days a year does a tuner work?” You won’t guess it exactly, but you’re more likely to be in the ballpark.

Breaking a problem down into parts can work in all sorts of areas. I use it when facing the puzzle of writing my books. If I visualize my task as one monolithic book, I feel overwhelmed. Instead, I break it down into a series of chapters, and see it as a sequence of smaller puzzles. Tackle parts instead of the whole.

Or, take the puzzle of getting myself to walk the treadmill for a few minutes a day. If I say to myself, “You have to walk on the treadmill for an hour today,” I will delay this task forever. So, I break it down. I put the big picture out of my mind. First, I tackle the subgoal of putting on my sneakers. I can do that. Then the subgoal of turning the treadmill on. I can do that. And just step onto the rubber belt for just five minutes. I can do that. Eventually, I’m walking and realize, this isn’t so bad. I can do this. I stay on for the full hour.


Consider the following puzzle: There’s a man in a room. The walls are cement and the floor is dirt. The only openings are a locked door and a skylight. The man has a shovel and starts to dig. He knows it’s impossible to tunnel out but continues to dig anyway. Why?

As solvers, many of us focus on the man digging a hole, but he is also doing the opposite: He is building a hill out of dirt. He will climb the hill and exit through the skylight.

Reversing your thinking is an incredibly powerful tool not just in puzzles, but also in life and business. It has spawned everything from the assembly line (what if the car parts move to workers, instead of workers moving to the car parts?) to the brilliant upside-down Heinz ketchup bottle.


Perhaps the most powerful weapon a puzzler has is cognitive flexibility. Good puzzlers don’t fall in love with their hypotheses. They keep their beliefs provisional, open to new evidence. They embrace the eraser and delete key.

Almost every puzzle I tackled required this. For instance, I love crosswords, and British crosswords are even trickier than American crosswords. They’re all about devious wordplay. I remember one clue: “Gegs.” That was the whole clue. I figured it was the plural of some word “geg,” but what does it mean? I resorted to Google and found that it is the airport symbol for Portland. I got nowhere. It was only after I took a break, let go of my certainty, and came back a couple hours later that the answer came to me. The answer is “scrambled eggs.” Very clever. Annoying, but clever.

I had to embrace the idea that I might be wrong to ultimately get it right. This is the hallmark of my favorite thinkers. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says, “Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I learned anything.”

This is why so many successful businesses started with a completely different premise. One of my favorite examples is that Welch’s grape juice started as nonalcoholic communion wine during Prohibition. Only when that failed did they switch to grape juice as a sweet treat for kids. More recently, there is the messaging software Slack, which started as an internal tool for a video game before the founders realized it had more potential than the game itself.


When faced with a problem, attack it at its weakest point. Bill Clinton talks about this strategy when he’s interviewed for the crossword puzzle documentary Wordplay. He says that if he’s doing a really hard crossword puzzle, often he’ll look at it for several minutes without knowing a single answer. Finally, he might see a clue that he knows, fill in that answer, and that’s all that’s needed to get started. You work out from that answer to get others.

Clinton says that he finds this a useful strategy for solving all kinds of problems, and I agree. Like with writing, often I won’t know how to start a chapter or article, but I do have one great quote or anecdote that I know I want to use. I’ll start with the anecdote and build out from there. Eventually, the whole structure will make itself clear, and I can write.

This article originally appeared in Next Big Idea Club magazine and is reprinted with permission.

Deaths of a Painting


The Many Deaths of a Painting

In 1975, Barbara Visser was a nine-year-old kid on a school field trip to the Stedelijk art museum when she first saw a painting titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III by the American post-war artist Barnett Newman.

Stedelijk Art Museum Photo by Editør (CC BY-SA 3.0)

What she saw was a massive canvas, nearly 18 feet wide and eight feet tall. On the left side, a small strip of blue, and on the right, a small strip of yellow. But the rest of the surface was painted entirely red. “And I got very angry,” says Visser, “I ran out of the museum. I sat on the steps and was determined not to go in again.”

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III by Barnett Newman

This was a painting that produced such strong reactions in people that it drove them to action. Visser struggled with the painting her entire life and made a feature-length documentary about it called The End of Fear, which inspired this story. It’s about a reaction the painting received that was so intense, so violent, it set off a chain of events that shook the art world to its core.

Anybody Can Do That

Barnett Newman was a late bloomer. He was a substitute art teacher, then an art critic, and then an artist. Newman didn’t even have his first solo show until he was almost forty-five years old. Newman quickly became the de facto spokesman for a new art movement called Abstract Expressionism.

Onement 1, 1948. During the 1940s Barnett Newman

Abstract Expressionism came out of New York in the 1940s. The movement produced painters like Jackson PollockMark Rothko, and Helen Frankenthaler. These artists were known for big canvases full of wild colors, shapes, and splashes of paint. Like many abstract expressionist artists, Newman saw his work as a reaction to the horrors of World War II. For Newman, figuring out what a painter could do after witnessing events such as the Holocaust and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki required ignoring all of art history and starting over from scratch.

Jackson Pollock

He began making large paintings that were big even by abstract expressionist standards. They could often fill the entire wall of a gallery. They usually featured very few colors — usually one solid hue broken up by a few vertical stripes which Newman  referred to as “zips.”

Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman. Photo by Sharon Mollerus (CC BY 2.0)

In 1967, Newman finished what would prove to be one of his largest paintings: Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III.” It was the third in a series, and the title was a reference to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the landmark play, which later became a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Barbara Visser says that when the Stedelijk Museum acquired Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III in 1969, a lot of people did not like it. “At the time people would write really long and elaborate letters to say how much they hated this painting,” she recalls. The painting elicited the kind of response that a lot of people still have to abstract art  — questioning why this constituted art at all when it seems as though anyone could do that. One woman even expressed that it literally made her sick.

At the time people would write really long and elaborate letters to say how much they hated this painting

In the 1980s, the painting was the centerpiece of an exhibit at the museum called the Grande Parade, the purpose of which was to raise exactly this question of what a painting is or isn’t. This was when the negative opinions of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III were taken to a whole new level.

The Murder of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III

While the painting was on display, a man named Gerard Jan van Bladeren attacked Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III with a box cutter, tracing a series of long slashes through the center of the canvas. When the slashes were added all up together, they measured nearly fifty feet long. Van Bladeren was 31, unemployed, living with his parents, and was a painter himself — although not very successful. He regarded this act of vandalism as an artistic gesture. He saw the painting as a kind of cultural provocation, and one of the main arguments that his lawyer made in his defense was that this provocation called for a reaction and got one.

Van Bladeren was sentenced to five months in prison, and stood by his actions as a defense of artistic values. Many people in the Netherlands agreed and sent letters to the Stedelijk. “This so-called vandal should be made the director of modern museums,” read one. “He did what hundreds of thousands of us would have liked to do,” read another. 

The Rules of Restoration

Carol Mancusi-Ungaro is one of the leading experts in the field of art conservation. Mancusi-Ungaro has pioneered techniques for restoring work by modern and contemporary artists and has worked on several paintings by Barnett Newman. She says that there are a set of rules that conservators must follow when restoring a painting, the first being that you should make every effort to not use any material that cannot be removed or reversed in the future.

If conservators add paint to a canvas, they want to make sure that paint can be dissolved and removed later. They do this in case the artwork needs to be retouched again in the future. Conservators also try to preserve as much of the original material as possible, touching only the areas that need treatment. They should also really study the artist and look at their past work in order to get a sense of what the artist was trying to achieve.

With these rules in mind, the Stedelijk phoned up practically every conservator in Europe. The biggest challenge was the very simplicity of the painting. The busy texture and detail of a Picasso or a Rembrandt often help to mask repair work, but Newman’s canvas was mostly just one big swath of uniform color, so any sign of repair would stand out.  

Daniel Goldreyer was a conservator based on Long Island who had worked with Newman while he was still alive who said he could repair the painting within 98% accuracy. Goldreyer promised that when he was done, the slashes would be virtually invisible. The officials at the Stedelijk breathed a sigh of relief, and in 1987, Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue III was rolled up, put in a narrow, coffin-like box, and carried solemnly down the steps of the museum and shipped off to Goldreyer’s studio in New York.

Murdered! Again!

Finally, four and a half years later, Goldreyer unveiled the painting, and when the museum director, Wim Beeren, came to inspect his work, there was no sign of the slashes. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III was headed back to Amsterdam. But when the painting went back up, people immediately noticed that the red paint looked different.  It was the same hue as before, but previously there had been a shimmering quality to the red that gave it a sense of depth.  All of that was gone, replaced with flat-looking red paint that, according to the restoration’s critics, robbed the painting of its original power. The city council of Amsterdam sent it to a forensic lab to try to figure out what Goldreyer had done, and they concluded Goldreyer had used a paint roller to lay down layers of dull acrylic paint similar to house paint over the original. If the analysis was correct, Goldreyer had rolled over the entire canvas of a twentieth-century masterpiece with house paint. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III had been murdered… again.

Goldreyer insisted that he hadn’t painted over the canvas and instead said he had pinpointed the red part with two million tiny dots. Although forensics refuted this, Goldreyer sued for defamation and the museum settled because the museum’s director had previously signed off on the restoration. The whole affair cost over a million dollars and now the museum was still stuck with a damaged painting.

Return of the Art Killer

In 1997, eleven years after the slashing, van Bladeren found out about the botched restoration of Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, and returned to the museum to do it again. Van Bladeren returned to the museum searching for Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III, to slash once more, but fortunately, the painting was not on display at the time. Van Bladeren found another piece by Newman, a large blue painting with a white zip down the middle titled Cathedra and attacked this piece with a box cutter. When he was done, he threw a packet of pamphlets on the floor that contained rambling, incoherent writing. At his second trial, van Bladeren was declared mentally unfit and sent to a psychiatric institution.

A History of Art Vandalism

These particular attacks were motivated by mental illness, but they’re also part of a long, sad history of art vandalism. Picasso’s Guernica was spray painted in the 70s; acid has been thrown at Rembrandt’s artwork; and two Michelangelo sculptures have been attacked with hammers. Newman’s work, in particular, has been vandalized several times for anti-semitic reasons. Newman was a Jewish artist and Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (which was the sequel to Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III) was struck and spat upon in Germany, because the attacker said it bore a mocking resemblance to the German flag. A Newman sculpture at a museum in Houston was spray-painted with swastikas in 1979 and just last year, someone poured white paint into the reflecting pool surrounding this same sculpture and left behind white supremacist leaflets.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch after being cut by William de Rijk in September 1975. Photo via Dutch National Archives (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After Cathedra was attacked, both Ysbrand Hummelen and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro advised on its restoration, and the museum spared no expense. The canvas was stitched together with surgical sutures and orthodontic wire on a specially built table. Four painstaking years later, it was unveiled. It’s not perfect — if you look closely, you can see the scars, but the impression survives.

Cathedra by Barnett Newman. Photo by Eric de Redelijkheid (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cathedra is currently on display at the Stedelijk. But not Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III. The painting is in a storage facility at the edge of town. It waits there, hoping for a day when future conservators might be able to undo what was done to it. To remove the layers of paint, and get to the original experience, the one the artist created, still sleeping underneath.



Reporter John Fecile spoke with Barbara Visser; Petra Ten Cate; Ysbrand Hummelen; and Carol Mancusi-Ungaro.