top of page


Provenance is one of the most universally misunderstood concepts in art, most particularly in Aboriginal art.

Provenance is the imprimatur conferred upon an artwork due to the entire history of its existence. It is a movable feast that only begins with how the artwork finds its way into the market and on to a client’s wall.

Imagine that a painting, like an individual dollar coin in your pocket, has passed through many hands since it was first created. The dollar coin is an exact replica of thousands of other coins that came off the same press in the mint yet each has an utterly different history of ownership. Your own coin may have been used to purchase all manner of items, both legal and illegal, by rich and by poor, healthy and sick, at any time between childhood to dotage. And so it is with each and every painting created by each and every individual artist.

An artwork’s provenance, and hence its value, only begins with how it found its way into the market in the first place. In the case of an old artefact, this could include whether it was actually made for its intended use or made for sale; whether it was at some time collected by a famous colonial identity; or sat on the mantelpiece in an iconic old homestead. In the case of an Aboriginal painting or sculpture, this will include whether it was produced by an artist and supplied to a community Art Centre, their official agent, an independent dealer, a taxi driver in Alice Springs, a local wholesaler, or perhaps even directly to a gallery at some point along the artist’s travels. Once past this initial transaction, the artwork may find its way into a souvenir shop, a retail outlet that specialises in Indigenous art, or a shop that carries a range of art objects and styles. If purchased by an exhibiting gallery, it may be used to advertise an exhibition in a quality art magazine and, if considered good enough, be included in a group or solo exhibition. It could be used to illustrate an invitation or included in an exhibition catalogue. The standing of the gallery that confers its imprimatur on the artwork will make a valuable contribution to its collectability, just as its sale on eBay or through a ‘fly by nighter’ will fail to enhance its value.

Given the many different scenarios that are possible, I have devised a guideline for collectors, which I refer to as an Index of Provenance. This is intended as no more than a tool to assist collectors and help them understand the concept of provenance and how it can be applied by good collectors to enhance the value of their collections. While there will be those at extreme ends of the philosophical divide who may object to the relative magnitude of the points that I have bestowed for various characteristics that make up the history of any individual artwork, I have weighted them according to my own experience after discussion with fellow dealers whose experience in the industry is as extensive as my own. The accompanying table should be self-explanatory. By adding the points that you can confer upon any individual painting, the ways in which a good collector can enhance its provenance should be obvious.


This index is indicative only. It can, however, be a very powerful tool, used to determine the provenance of your artwork. Give an artwork a ‘score’ using the point system below. It is specifically for a work of Australian Aboriginal art. It can, however, be modified in order to apply to absolutely any asset class.

Mount Wedge – Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

100.0 x 180.0 cm

Aboriginal artwork

Bought directly from the artist with some documentary evidence prior to 1985 2

Bought through an Art Centre 3

Bought through a recognised established wholesaler 1

Accompanied by:

a certificate of authenticity from an Art Centre 2

a certificate of authenticity from a recognised established wholesaler 1

a photo of the artist with the painting 1

a photo of the artist working on the painting 2

a folio of photographs or video showing the painting being created 3

The work was/Is:

Sold and documented by an exhibiting gallery* 2

Sold and documented by a retail non-exhibiting gallery or wholesaler 1

Included in a documented and curated group exhibition prior to sale 1

Included in a solo exhibition of the artist’s work 2

Illustrated on the invitation or in a gallery catalogue that is sold with the painting 1

Included in a regional touring exhibition prior to, or subsequent to sale 1

Included in a national touring exhibition 2

Included in an international touring exhibition 3

Illustrated in a touring exhibition catalogue 2

Illustrated in a book 2

Illustrated in a magazine article or review which accompanies the work 1

Lent to or de-accessioned from a regional gallery or equivalent institution 1

Lent to or de-accessioned from a State gallery or equivalent institution 2

Sold from an important private collection 2

Lent to or de-accessioned from a National gallery or equivalent institution 3

Currently offered for sale or purchased from an elite gallery* 2

Previously offered for sale by a major auction house** 1

Currently offered for sale by a major auction house in its premier specialist sale (Tier One) 2

Currently offered for sale by a major auction house in its Tier Two or mixed sale 1

Thoonbi – Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford

150.0 x 180.0 cm

*An exhibiting gallery is considered to have a regular exhibition program throughout the year. Holding an occasional exhibition in their gallery or in an interstate or overseas gallery is not enough to qualify as an exhibiting gallery for this purpose. If an exhibiting member of ACGA or Art.Trade you may add extra point

** Christies, Sotheby’s, Bonham’s, (In Australia Deutscher and Hackett, and Mossgreen can be considered major auction houses)

The maximum index that is achievable using this guide for a work of the highest provenance is approximately 20 points.

Now that you have worked out your score, let’s see exactly what this means


– and, as a consequence, increase its value

You will find the points system above to be an extremely useful and reliable indicator of the desirability of any work that you may be considering for purchase or that is already in your own collection. While not mentioned in any of the criteria that attract points, you can be almost certain that there will often be a high degree of correlation between an artwork’s aesthetic value and its increasing index of provenance. However, the most important information that this index of provenance can provide is HOW YOU CAN ENHANCE THE VALUE OF YOUR ARTWORK. This is how good collectors increase the imprimatur of individual pieces and, in fact, their entire collection.

1-4 COLD

If this is a painting bought directly off the artist or a dealer with no bone fides and was not bought through a reputable shop or gallery, it will not be of interest to the secondary market unless it has considerable age and the work is of a high quality. It is unadvisable to purchase paintings in this category that were not created at least pre-1985, as once in your collection they are extremely difficult to sell. In the case of Aboriginal artworks, those created prior to the establishment of art centres and specialist dealers and galleries may be an exception if they are aesthetically pleasing, rare, or culturally significant.


Artworks in this category should be well documented with either a certificate from the community art centre or working photograph(s). They may have been bought through a recognised gallery or dealer and should therefore be a reasonable investment if held on to for a long enough time to appreciate. Anything that can be done to increase the provenance of a work of art in this category will enhance its value. Lending it to an institution, getting it into a publication, etc. all helps, providing it is a good piece painted with integrity by a recognised artist.

9-12 WARM

A good collector, or sophisticated investor, will seek to ensure that the majority of artworks in their collection are in this category or above. It is far easier to build the imprimatur of art that already has this level of provenance. These works are likely to be readily acceptable to the secondary market. All works of a lower quality or provenance level should be shed, or their provenance improved in order to rigorously maintain a good collection.

13-16 HOT

These are works of high pedigree. Art in this category will always sell for a premium price and be highly sought after by serious collectors. These are generally listed as ‘top lots’ when sold and have a full page or more dedicated to them in sale catalogues.


As there are only works of museum quality here, you will be lucky to own one even if you have very deep pockets and an insatiable appetite for the best of the best.

I strongly recommend that those collectors who are primarily concerned with the investment potential of their paintings take a good look at those works with an Index of Provenance lower than 9 (i.e. those in the cold and tepid categories). While there are a variety of ways to enhance their value, serious consideration should be given to culling them, most especially if the options of improving their provenance are limited. This is especially important advice for those whose works are in a superannuation fund or similar investment portfolio. Works with a low provenance index should be sold and the money generated reinvested into works that are more easily moved into higher index categories.

By simply using the information above many of the ways in which you can improve the value of your art should be clear. These include lending works for inclusion in touring exhibitions, loaning works to institutions and exhibiting galleries, or promoting them through articles in art magazines and the media in general.

The worst possible thing that you can do for a work of art is to roll it up and store it under your bed or lock it away as if it were a share document or the title to a property. To increase in value, a painting should be as visible as possible.


– the cream always rises to the top

Always purchase fewer works of higher value and better provenance than spreading your limited funds too thin. Investing in works created by major established artists is definitely far safer in the long term, but these ‘blue chip’ paintings will be less likely to reap spectacular results.

Target paintings by acknowledged artists, in styles as represented in major institutions, if investment potential is a key objective. Once an artist dies or is no longer able to paint, the finite supply of paintings relative to the increasing domestic and international demand means that prices rise.

Hank Ebes, Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings, February 2005[4]

Art is no different from the share market. If you want blue-chip artists the fluctuations are going to be minimal. Others may reap spectacular profits both in the long term and the short term but there are no guarantees.

Charles Nodrum, December 2005[5]

Featured artworks

bottom of page