The provenance of a work of art is the history of its ownership

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  • Nathaniel Hone, 'Sketch for 'The Conjuror'' 1775
    Nathaniel Hone
    Sketch for 'The Conjuror' 1775
    Oil on wood
    support: 575 x 819 mm
    frame: 765 x 940 x 70 mm
    Purchased 1967
  • Kasimir Malevich, 'Dynamic Suprematism' 1915 or 1916
    Kazimir Malevich
    Dynamic Suprematism 1915 or 1916
    Oil on canvas
    support: 803 x 800 mm frame: 1015 x 1015 x 80 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1978
  • John Martin, 'The Last Judgement' 1853
    John Martin
    The Last Judgement 1853
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1968 x 3258 mm
    frame: 2400 x 3685 x 175 mm
    Bequeathed by Charlotte Frank in memory of her husband Robert Frank 1974

The word comes from the French verb ‘provenir’, to come from. Provenance is essential in identifying with certainty the authorship of a work of art. When the chips are down, no amount of connoisseurship can beat a good provenance. The ideal provenance would consist of a history of ownership traceable right back to the artist’s studio. Another important aspect of the history of an artwork is the exhibitions it has been in.

The importance of provenance has not escaped the attention of forgers. In the 1990s a forger inserted fake references to forged paintings into material such as exhibition catalogues in museum archives. This convinced buyers even when the quality of the forgery was not especially good.

The works illustrated each have an interesting provenance. Nathaniel Hone’s painting Sketch for ‘The Conjuror’ was discovered in Brazil. Dynamic Suprematism by Kasimir Malevich was sold off by the Soviet government. John Martin’s The Last Judgement is one of three panels of a once famous triptych that had been broken up in the 1930s. One panel was then acquired by Tate, the other two disappeared. They were later tracked down by a private collector and eventually bequeathed to Tate, reuniting all three panels again.