International Provenance Research Day falls on the second Wednesday of April each year.
The word “provenance” derives from the French provenir de, which means to come from or to originate. Provenance research refers to the ownership history of an artwork or object. As a provenance researcher, I help to research, update and maintain records on the thousands of objects we have in the collections of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
The provenance researcher traces the ownership history of an object back as early as possible, from when the work was created, or even earlier, perhaps when it was commissioned by a patron. Research might include when and where it was discovered or excavated. This pillow in the form of a tortoise (above) was excavated in 1943 near Bangkok, Thailand. Who previously owned it? Was it purchased, donated, inherited, or transferred, and if so, when and where? How did it get here? A researcher tries to answer those questions.
I start by reviewing what we already know about an object. I search through our museum database and object files. I often examine the work for marks or stickers that could provide valuable clues about dealers or collectors who might have owned it. Accession files include documentation on how the museum acquired it. Exhibition and auction catalogues might provide information if the object was previously shown in a museum or gallery. An artist’s published catalogue raisonné includes a complete list of known works, with descriptions and images, and extensive scholarly notes, such as bibliographic information, exhibition history, and more. Online and genealogical searches can also be helpful. Public and private archives often preserve documentation, including correspondence, inventories, sales records, and purchase receipts. Sometimes I feel like an armchair detective!
Recently I was part of a team that included Smithsonian staff and outside institutional partners. We researched, wrote, and shared information on forty-six of the most important collectors and dealers of Chinese art who are associated with the Freer and Sackler collections. Their biographies are now on our website. These biographies of Asian art collectors and dealers help us to understand how and from whom they bought and sold artworks. I am especially proud of our efforts on this project.
To learn more about provenance research at the Freer and Sackler, please visit https://asia.si.edu/collections/provenance-research/.
To learn more about our collections and to access individual provenance entries, please see https://asia.si.edu/collections/.