A Guide to Provenance Research at the Archives of American Art

This Guide to Provenance Research is the result of a project funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to enhance access to the Archives’ World War II era provenance research collections.

The study of provenance—the history of ownership of a work of art—has a long tradition as a methodology of art history. Scholars and curators undertake provenance research to gain deeper understanding of objects and their ownership paths, and to better comprehend the historical, social, and economic context in which artworks were created, collected, and through which they changed hands over time. Provenance research can be a means to establish the pedigree of an artwork, or to securely establish the identity and authenticity of a specific work.

Provenance research relies upon documentary and archival resources, and the extensive and multi-dimensional collections of the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution provide some of the most fruitful resources anywhere for documenting the history of European art collecting and for American and international provenance studies. The breadth and extraordinary depth of detail found in the Archives’ holdings of dealer, art historian, artist, collector, and gallery correspondence, stock inventories, estate records, oral histories, sales ledgers, photographic images, as well as exhibition and bibliographic materials, offers remarkable opportunities for provenance research and scholarship. The Archives holds the largest collection of art gallery records anywhere in the world, currently nearly 200 individual archival collections, and offers researchers a unique opportunity to consult multiple resources at one repository.

Researchers can use the Archives’ collections to analyze shifts in collecting tastes and market variations over many decades of the 20th century, as well as compare European and American viewpoints. The Archives’ resources reveal who owned what artwork, who put an artwork on the market, when that happened, and where it happened. Moreover, these rich paths of discovery are found and validated in interconnected and related collections.

Laurie A. Stein, Senior Advisor, Provenance Research Initiative, Smithsonian Institution

With Barbara Aikens, Head of Collections Processing, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution and Jane Milosch, Director of the Provenance Research Initiative, Smithsonian Institution.

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