The significance of provenance in auction

Anyone who has ever watched an episode of Antiques Roadshow understands the anticipation of stumbling upon a valuable item in your attic or at a car boot sale. But how can you tell if it will sell for a decent sum at auction? One way is by verifying its provenance.


An important set of six Chippendale period grey painted and parcel gilt open armchairs, PROVENANCE Thomas Gurnell, Pitzhanger Manor, Ealing 1725-1785 - more background here. 

What is provenance?

The term provenance comes from the French word provenir, which means “to come from”. A provenance details the ownership history of a piece all the way back to its creation.

Determining where a piece originated can sometimes be a complex process. Provenance is not just where a piece was created: it also includes the auction houses, art dealers and/or galleries that have sold the piece of art, as well as art exhibitions where the item has been displayed and the private and/or institutional collections in which the piece has been held.


Laurence Stephen Lowry, RA, ''FAMILY GROUP'' signed and dated '68. PROVENANCE Purchased by the Vendors' father at the Stone Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne late 1960's. This piece sold for £52,000 in our Fine Art Auction. 


The main purpose of provenance is to verify the artwork’s authenticity. If an item’s timeline includes undocumented gaps of time, it’s possible that it could be a forgery or a stolen piece. A piece of art with a clearly documented provenance is highly valuable – especially if its provenance is as interesting as the piece. Imagine owning artwork previously owned by a celebrity or member of the royal family!

Take the example of outsider art – David Bowie’s collection of outsider art was recently sold at auction after his death. The artwork was sought after mostly due to its celebrity provenance, but that also influenced the entire outsider art market. Anderson and Garland auctioneers sold the largest specialist collection of outsider art a year later for record-breaking prices! View the results of the auction here.


Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern ''Der Moralische Hintern-Mondkritiker'' 1960 Signed, inscribed and dated. PROVENANCE: Rosa Esman Gallery, New York European Outsiders exhibition Oct-Nov 1986. This sold for £10,000 in the Outsider Art Auction. 

Provenance documentation

There are many ways to prove provenance, including the following types of documentation:

  • Catalogues Raisonnés

This is a comprehensive list of all known artworks by an artist, compiled by experts.

  • Appraisal

 The piece may have been appraised in the past for insurance purposes or as part of an estate. A previous appraisal can help confirm the age and ownership of an item, albeit historical appraisals won’t serve to determine the current value of the piece.

  • Invoice, receipt or bill of sale

These are important not only for the timeline of the provenance but also to confirm that the seller legally owns the artwork.

  • Auction catalogue

Previous auction results are typically publicly available and can help track the history and past value of the item.

  • Archive and/or model reference

Fine jewellery or watches will often come with a detailed archive of their inventory, and model numbers can help determine a piece’s authenticity.

  • Exhibition catalogue or illustration

If your item was previously included in an art exhibition, there should be evidence available.

  • Museum inventory number

If the piece was displayed at a museum, it will have an inventory number indicating which collection it was displayed within and the time period.



Purchasing art and understanding provenance

If you're interested in acquiring a new piece, make sure to carefully review and document its provenance with the help of an expert in valuations and art.

Contact our expert valuations team to discuss buying or selling a piece of provenance artwork at auction.



Got something similar or want to chat with one of our specialists?

Just fill in the form below

Images max size 6MB

Drag and drop .jpg images here to upload, or click here to select images.


We send a regular e-shots to our customers. Sign up below.