“The Red Violin” is a 1998 Canadian film that relays the fictional history of a mysterious red colored violin crafted in Italy in 1681. The story of the violin spans over four centuries, five countries and multiple owners.  It ultimately makes its way to an auction house in Montreal in 1997, its origins brought to life by an astute appraiser.  I won’t reveal the ending of this award winning movie (directed by Francois Girard) but it is worth noting that the story was apparently inspired by a historic 1720 Stradivarius violin called the Red Mendolssohn, whose provenance is equally fascinating.

Why Provenance Matters

The word “provenance” comes from the French verb “provenir”, which means to come from, or stem from… marking the beginning of an entity’s existence. It is most often used to reference a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, and used as a guide to its authenticity.

Though most collectors may not deal with a work of art whose history spans centuries, the importance of a work’s provenance survives.  It is essentially a chronology of the ownership of the work, and gives the owner, and future owners, a historical context. The history of the ownership will play into the ultimate value assigned to the work of art, That includes the manner of acquisition, the character of the former owners, and the environment from which it came. Clearly, the older the piece, the more important the trail of ownership.

Establishing the provenance of a work of art starts with basic record keeping. That means maintaining original bills of sale, and the accompanying documentation that will establish ownership and title of the piece. That would include a record of exhibitions, appraisals, previous owners, mentions in an exhibition catalogue (catalog raisonne), updated biography of the artist, or mention of the artist and artwork in a magazine or newspaper article. While important, a certificate of authentication is often but a starting point.

Surprisingly, while many art collectors understand the importance of ownership when viewing historical or contemporary masterpieces, they give less scrutiny to the chain of title of the living artists they collect.  That comes back to haunt even sophisticated collectors when and if the piece is put to auction, donated or passed down to future generations only to be later sold and monetized. At some point future collectors, dealers and yes, even the IRS will want to have a clear cut paper trail dating back to the origins of the art.