What gives artwork value?

Provenance in art has become the new thing recently. Ever since the massive amount of currency used in the purchase of an NFT (Non-Fungible Token), provenance has gone mainstream. For a collector of art, this is nothing new. Collectors tend to place value on almost everything you can imagine. The most important aspects of collecting art is rarity and authenticity. No collector wants something that can be had by everyone. By definition, provenance is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a valued artifact, literature or art. In the 21st century, this list of items can go on and on, even digitally.

The painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is one of five Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen from Maria Altmann’s family by the Nazis in 1938.
The painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is one of five Gustav Klimt paintings that were stolen from Maria Altmann’s family by the Nazis in 1938.

Lately, the ownership of stolen paintings by the Nazis in World War II (WWII) has been in the news again. The search for who really owns these great works of art has fallen on testimony of friends, relatives or acquaintances. According to information from the National Archive, “The idea of provenance  is as old as recorded time. Museums and galleries are researching the provenance of paintings, decorative arts, and sculpture in their collections in order to confirm the origins of the work. As a result of the war, a significant amount of artwork still is missing and unaccounted for” (National Archive).

Why is provenance so important?

Verified provenance can prove the authenticity of a piece and greatly increase its value. Since art has been collectible for thousands of years, determining where a piece comes from is often a complex combination of historical study and detailed documentation. It is important for most people that their antiques, jewelry, artifact or painting has some value. The Antique Road Show, a TV program that have experts who will valuate your antiques, is popular for a reason. However, appraisal is not quite provenance.

Provenance establishes an item’s collectible significance beyond what it would otherwise appear to have. For instance, art with interesting provenance can have a back story that is just as interesting as the piece itself(Artwork Archive)! 

When purchasing work at an art fair or gallery, chances are you may have questions about the work. You get to meet the artist. Most artist will happily answer any question you have. This might include anything from process or technique to why they chose the subject matter. It’s usually rooted in an emotional connection or influences. Identifying with the artist is a good way to know if you are purchasing an original work. 

Provenance or ownership can take on many forms. Some of the ways to establish provenance:

  • A signed certificate.
  • An exhibition or gallery sticker
  • Receipts signed directly by the artist
  • A video or photo of the artist with the work
  • Verifiable names of the previous owners
  • An article in a book, periodical or online

What about online?

Online art sales has seen a good deal of activity during the pandemic. At times, it was the only way to acquire art. However, this is a buyer beware moment. According to ArtBusiness.com, the art business has always had its problems with fraudulent art transactions. Usually in the way of provenance. As much as the above items could show provenance, they can easily be used to fake authenticity of the work.

Personally, it is hard to part with a piece I put my heart and soul into. The good news is that with fine art printers available, you can get that high cost original at a fraction of the price. This is great for people who want a high quality image of their favorite work. However, not all fine art printers are the same. The bad news is you would probably not go this route when provenance is your goal. Sometimes so many editions can be produced, it loses its potential value to a collector. For individuals who would like to have an original work with a reasonable price point, consider limited edition prints.


Another form of print reproduction is the art of printmaking. There are several types of printmaking techniques and most date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some notable techniques are:

  • Woodcut
  • Linocut
  • Collagraph
  • Engraving
  • Etching
  • Aquatint
  • Lithography
  • Monotype
  • Screen prints or serigraphs

If provenance is a goal but the art budget is a little tight, consider an artist who is a printmaker. Most of these techniques require lots of physical and painstaking work so the artist cannot output unlimited quantities or the artist may choose a limit on which he will produce them. Many well-known painters also worked in printmaking as well for this reason. Some of the more popular artist are:

In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, 1946, (Princeton)
Elizabeth Catlett. In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, 1946, (Princeton)
  • Andy Warhol
  • Pablo Picasso
  • Albrecht Dürer
  • Edouard Manet
  • Diego Rivera
  • Rembrandt
  • Ben Shahn
  • Elizabeth Catlett

The rule of thumb on evaluating and purchasing a print or any art for that matter is authencity and rarity. Other things to consider:

  • Limited editions (as opposed to open editions).
  • The amount of colors used (in most of techniques mentioned, each color is hand pulled independently). The more colors used, the more expensive the work.
  • Size.
  • Substrate. Cotton papers, canvas, archival quality papers, wood, glass, metal, etc.

The goal here is to have as few prints circulating as possible. Additionally, each print is usually not reproduced exactly like the other. This is because the artist is not a machine and the work is not for commercial purposes, such as you would use for a brochure or magazine. This is ideal. It gives you a work that is original, but possibly at a lower price point. I enjoy the benefits of collecting limited editions prints. I have purchased both giclee limited editions fine art prints and limited edition hand-pulled prints. I suspect that the hand-pulled art prints will hold its provenance better than the former. There are many more sources that touch on the issue of provenance. Do your research and enjoy collecting!

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