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 onto 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.
INDEX OF PROVENANCE
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.
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjari, Love Story Ngarlu, 1991, 152.5 x 122 cm
To be offered for sale in the Cooee Art MarketPlace November 27th Auction.
Painted for an established dealer, included in artist touring retrospective to State institutions and illustrated in several books, magazines, and catalogues.
This exceptional rendition of the artists most important story has a Provenance Index of 17 (Stellar).
Source (Choose only one of the following)
Accompanied by (Choose no more than two of the following)
Exhibition History (Choose no more than eight of the following if applicable)
*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 AGAA (Art Galleries Association of Australia) or AAAA (Aboriginal Art Association of Australia) you may add extra point
** Christies, Sotheby’s, Bonham’s, (In Australia Deutscher and Hackett can be considered major auction house; and Cooee Art MarketPlace may be considered a 'specialist' Auction House for Aboriginal Art)
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
Paddy Nyunkuny Bedford, Thoonbi, 2006, 150 x 180 cm
Created by Jirawun Arts and illustrated in the MCA retrospective catalogue. This major work has a Provenance Index of 15.
HOW TO BUILD THE PROVENANCE OF YOUR ARTWORK –
- 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.
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.
Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Untitled (Rainmaker Bird Ceremony), 1972, 91.5 x 60.5 cm
Created for Papunya Tula Artists in 1972, this early board by Tim Leura has never been exhibited. Last offered for sale in 2001 its Index of Provenance is just 7.
This can be more than doubled easily by loaning this ‘Blue Chip’ work to institutions and working to build its imprimatur and exposure. As a result, its value and renown will increase exponentially.
To be offered for sale in the Cooee Art MarketPlace November 27th Auction.
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.
TIP NUMBER 5: LESS IS BEST
- 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.
Hank Ebes, Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings, February 2005
Charles Nodrum, December 2005
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