Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", refers to the chronology of the ownership or location of a historical object. The term was originally mostly used in relation to works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including archaeology, paleontology, archives, manuscripts, printed books, and science and computing. The primary purpose of tracing the provenance of an object or entity is normally to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing, as far as practicable, its later history, especially the sequences of its formal ownership, custody, and places of storage. The practice has a particular value in helping authenticate objects. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, and the results of scientific tests may also be used to these ends, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation.
In archaeology (particularly North American archaeology and anthropological archaeology throughout the world), the term provenience is used in related but a subtly different sense to provenance. Archaeological researchers use provenience to refer to the three-dimensional location of an artifact or feature within an archaeological site, whereas provenance covers an object's complete documented history. Provenience can be used more broadly (e.g. the name of valley or estate), especially when an artifact was found by a private party and its specific position not recorded. Any given antiquity may therefore have both a provenience (where it was found) and a provenance (where it has been since it was found). In rare cases, e.g. known artisanship or original ownership, an antiquity's provenance may include facts that predate its entry into the archaeological record, as well as those relating to its history after rediscovery.
The provenance of works of fine art, antiques and antiquities is of great importance, especially to their owner. There are a number of reasons why painting provenance is important, which mostly also apply to other types of fine art. A good provenance increases the value of a painting, and establishing provenance may help confirm the date, artist and, especially for portraits, the subject of a painting. It may confirm whether a painting is genuinely of the period it seems to date from. The provenance of paintings can help resolve ownership disputes. For example, provenance between 1933 and 1945 can determine whether a painting was looted by the Nazis. Many galleries are putting a great deal of effort into researching the provenance of paintings in their collections for which there is no firm provenance during that period. Documented evidence of provenance for an object can help to establish that it has not been altered and is not a forgery, a reproduction, stolen or looted art. Provenance helps assign the work to a known artist, and a documented history can be of use in helping to prove ownership. An example of a detailed provenace is given in the Arnolfini portrait.
The quality of provenance of an important work of art can make a considerable difference to its selling price in the market; this is affected by the degree of certainty of the provenance, the status of past owners as collectors, and in many cases by the strength of evidence that an object has not been illegally excavated or exported from another country. The provenance of a work of art may vary greatly in length, depending on context or the amount that is known, from a single name to an entry in a scholarly catalogue some thousands of words long.
An expert certification can mean the difference between an object having no value and being worth a fortune. Certifications themselves may be open to question. Jacques van Meegeren forged the work of his father Han van Meegeren (who in his turn had forged the work of Vermeer). Jacques sometimes produced a certificate with his forgeries stating that a work was created by his father. See Jacques van Meegeren.
John Drewe was able to pass off as genuine paintings, a large number of forgeries that would have easily been recognised as such by scientific examination. He established an impressive (but false) provenance and because of this galleries and dealers accepted the paintings as genuine. He created this false provenance by forging letters and other documents, including false entries in earlier exhibition catalogues.
The objective of provenance research is to produce a complete list of owners (together, where possible, with the supporting documentary proof) from when the painting was commissioned or in the artist's studio through to the present time. In practice, there are likely to be gaps in the list and documents that are missing or lost. The documented provenance should also list when the painting has been part of an exhibition and a bibliography of when it has been discussed (or illustrated) in print.
Where the research is proceeding backwards, to discover the previous provenance of a painting whose current ownership and location is known, it is important to record the physical details of the painting - style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions, frame, etc. The titles of paintings and the attribution to a particular artist may change over time. The size of the work and its description can be used to identify earlier references to the painting. The back of a painting can contain significant provenance information. There may be exhibition marks, dealer stamps, gallery labels and other indications of previous ownership. There may also be shipping labels. In the BBC TV programme Fake or Fortune? the provenance of the painting Bords de la Seine à Argenteuil was investigated using a gallery sticker and shipping label on the back. Early provenance can sometimes be indicated by a cartellino added to a painting in a collection. However these can be forged and can become faded or be painted over.
Auction records are an important resource to assist in researching the provenance of paintings.
Where a painting has been bought from a dealer, or changed hands in a private transaction, there may be a bill of sale or sales receipt that provides evidence of provenance. Where the artist is known, there may be a catalogue raisonné listing all the artist's known works and their location at the time of writing. A database of catalogues raisonnés is available at the International Foundation for Art Research. If a painting has been in private hands for an extended period and on display in a stately home, it may have been noticed by a visitor who subsequently wrote about it. Similarly, the painting may be discussed and illustrated in a more general work on the artist, period or genre.
Historic photos of a painting may show inscriptions (or a signature) that subsequently became lost as a result of overzealous restoration. Conversely, a photograph may show that an inscription was not visible at an earlier date. One of the disputed aspects of the "Rice" portrait of Jane Austen concerns apparent inscriptions identifying artist and sitter.
In transactions of old wine with the potential of improving with age, the issue of provenance has a large bearing on the assessment of the contents of a bottle, both in terms of quality and the risk of wine fraud. A documented history of wine cellar conditions is valuable in estimating the quality of an older vintage due to the fragile nature of wine.
Provenance is a fundamental principle of archival science, referring to the individual, group, or organization that originally created or received the items in a collection, and to the items' subsequent chain of custody. According to archival theory and the principle of provenance, records of different provenance should be separated. Conversely, records which originate from a common source (or fonds) should be kept together – preferably physically, but, where that is not practicable, certainly intellectually in the way in which they are catalogued and arranged in finding aids – in accordance with what is sometimes termed the principle of archival integrity. In archival practice, proof of provenance is provided by the operation of control systems that document the history of records kept in archives, including details of amendments made to them. The authority of an archival document or set of documents of which the provenance is uncertain (because of gaps in the recorded chain of custody) will be considered to be severely compromised. The principles of archival provenance were developed in the 19th century by both French and Prussian archivists.
Provenance is also the title of the journal published by the Society of Georgia Archivists.
In the case of books, the study of provenance refers to the study of the ownership of individual copies of books. It is usually extended to include study of the circumstances in which individual copies of books have changed ownership, and of evidence left in books that shows how readers interacted with them.
Provenance studies may shed light on the books themselves, providing evidence of the role particular titles have played in social, intellectual and literary history. Such studies may also add to our knowledge of particular owners of books. For instance, looking at the books owned by a writer may help to show which works influenced him or her.
Many provenance studies are historically focused, and concentrated on books owned by writers, politicians and public figures. The recent ownership of books is studied, however, as is evidence of how ordinary or anonymous readers have interacted with books.
Provenance can be studied both by examining the books themselves (for instance looking at inscriptions, marginalia, bookplates, book rhymes, and bindings) and by reference to external sources of information such as auction catalogues.
Evidence of provenance can be of importance in archaeology. Fakes are not unknown and finds are sometimes removed from the context in which they were found without documentation, reducing their value to the world of learning. Even when apparently discovered in-situ archaeological finds are treated with caution. The provenance of a find may not be properly represented by the context in which it was found. Artifacts can be moved far from their place of origin by mechanisms that include looting, collecting, theft or trade and further research is often required to establish the true provenance of a find.
In paleontology it is recognised that fossils can also move from their primary context and are sometimes found, apparently in-situ, in deposits to which they do not belong, moved by, for example, the erosion of nearby but different outcrops. Most museums make strenuous efforts to record how the works in their collections were acquired and these records are often of use in helping to establish provenance.
In the geologic use of the term, provenance instead refers to the lithologic origin of a rock, most commonly in sedimentary rocks. It does not typically refer to the circumstances of the collection of the rock.
Seed provenance refers to the specified area in which plants that produced seed are located or were derived. Local provenancing is a position maintained by ecologists that suggests that seeds should be planted of local provenance only. However, this view suffers from the adaptationist program - a view that populations are universally locally adapted. It is maintained that local seed is best adapted to local conditions (local adaptation) and outbreeding depression will be avoided. Evolutionary biologists suggest that strict adherence to provenance collecting is not a wise decision because:
Scientific research is generally held to be of good provenance when it is documented in detail sufficient to allow reproducibility. Scientific workflows assist scientists and programmers with tracking their data through all transformations, analyses, and interpretations. Data sets are reliable when the process used to create them are reproducible and analyzable for defects. Current initiatives to effectively manage, share, and reuse ecological data are indicative of the increasing importance of data provenance. Examples of these initiatives are National Science Foundation Datanet projects, DataONE and Data Conservancy.
The term provenance is used when ascertaining the source of goods such as computer hardware to assess if they are genuine or counterfeit. Chain of custody is an equivalent term used in law, especially for evidence in criminal or commercial cases.
Software provenance relates to establishing the origins of software and identifying what licensing terms the individual components of that software fall under. For example, before an organization might incorporate an open source software component in an enterprise application it may wish to establish provenance on it to ensure the it does not contain source code under a viral licensing agreement which may in turn force it to release any derivative works. A number of commercial software companies produce applications and offer services specifically designed to audit source code and/or software binaries to help identify the origins of subcomponents and what licensing terms each fall under. Palamida, Inc. and Black Duck Software are the two largest suppliers of such applications and services.
Data provenance covers the provenance of computerized data. There are two main aspects of data provenance: ownership of the data and data usage. Ownership will tells the user who is responsible for the source of the data, ideally including information on the originator of the data. Data usage gives details regarding how the data as been used and modified and often includes information on how to cite the data source or sources. Data provenance is of particular concern with electronic data, as data sets are often modified and copied without proper citation or acknowledgement of the originating data set. Databases make it easy to select specific information from data sets and merge this data with other data sources without any documentation of how the data was obtained or how it was modified from the original data set or sets.
Secure Provenance refers to providing integrity and confidentiality guarantees to provenance information. In other words, secure provenance means to ensure that history cannot be rewritten, and users can specify who else can look into their actions on the object.
Provenance in book studies
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