Before addressing those questions, it is useful to consider how provenance is relevant to sales of art. Art litigation generally falls within one of three categories: disputes concerning ownership, disputes concerning authenticity, and, to a lesser extent, disputes concerning value. The provenance of a work may bear on each of those potential areas of dispute. Obviously, to the extent provenance represents a chain of title, it may bear quite directly on a dispute concerning ownership. (If “H.W. Göring, Berlin” is listed in the provenance, that is probably a red flag).3
At the state level, art forgery may constitute a species of fraud, material misrepresentation, or breach of contract. The Uniform Commercial Code provides contractually-based relief to duped buyers based on warranties of authenticity.[30] The predominant civil theory to address art forgery remains civil fraud. When substantiating a civil fraud claim, the plaintiff is generally required to prove that the defendant falsely represented a material fact, that this representation was made with intent to deceive, that the plaintiff reasonably relied on the representation, and the representation resulted in damages to the plaintiff.

In the geologic use of the term, provenance instead refers to the origin or source area of particles within a rock, most commonly in sedimentary rocks. It does not refer to the circumstances of the collection of the rock. The provenance of sandstone, in particular, can be evaluated by determining the proportion of quartz, feldspar, and lithic fragments (see diagram).

In paleontology and paleoanthropology, it is recognized that fossils can also move from their primary context and are sometimes found, apparently in-situ, in deposits to which they do not belong because they have been moved, for example, by the erosion of nearby but different outcrops. It is unclear how strictly paleontology maintains the provenience and provenance distinction. For example, a short glossary at a website (primarily aimed at young students) of the American Museum of Natural History treats the terms as synonymous,[27] while scholarly paleontology works make frequent use of provenience in the same precise sense as used in archaeology and paleoanthropology.
In an effort to make this information more publicly accessible, this list can be found here and and is regularly updated as the Museum’s research progresses. This list is also published on AAM’s Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP), a central searchable registry of objects in U.S. museums that were created before 1946 and that possibly changed hands in continental Europe between 1933 and 1945, which was last updated in 2017.

Federal investigators don't know exactly how much Pei-Shen Qian made on the scheme, but it was at least $65,000. He fled to China and was later indicted. In an interview with Bloomberg News three years ago, the forger explained he began painting in Shanghai, and moved to the U.S. in the 1980s. He insisted he never intended to pass his paintings off as anything other than imitations and found it incredible that anyone had taken the paintings seriously.


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 only seeds of local provenance should be planted in a particular area. However, this view depends on the adaptationist program – a view that populations are universally locally adapted.[63] It is maintained that local seed is best adapted to local conditions, and that outbreeding depression will be avoided. Evolutionary biologists suggest that strict adherence to provenance collecting is not a wise decision because:
Vilas Likhite, a Los Angeles doctor, was said to have owned a multimillion-dollar art collection inherited from an Indian maharajah. His collected works included the names of Brancusi, Lichtenstein, Chagall, Casatt, and others. The pieces he collected were best described as "museum quality." At times, he could be persuaded to sell some of these works to trusted friends for exceptionally low prices. However, a recent sale of a Casatt proved to be his downfall when he sold it to an undercover police detective who specialized in art fraud. All of Likhite's carefully documented works, some presented in a three-ring binder, were fakes.
The AML Standards for Art Market Operators (“AML Standards”) are set forth by the Basel Institute on Governance, an independent not-for-profit organization.  Not surprisingly, the AML Standards adopt a “risk based” approach to establishing measures to mitigate money laundering risks, and further note that “[s]mall businesses may not have the resources to address money-laundering risks in the same way that large auction houses or major dealers and galleries will have, and may have a different risk exposure.”  The AML Standards are intended to apply to everone trading in art objects, and intermediaries between buyers and sellers.  They also suggest that service industries supprting the trade in art objects that are already subject to AML laws, like financial institutions, should identify their clients and customers in the art trade “as higher risk as long as there are no internationally applicable standards.”
Some exposed forgers have later sold their reproductions honestly, by attributing them as copies, and some have actually gained enough notoriety to become famous in their own right. Forgeries painted by the late Elmyr de Hory, featured in the film F for Fake directed by Orson Welles, have become so valuable that forged de Horys have appeared on the market.
Ken Dreifach, head of the Internet Bureau at the New York State Attorney General's office, reported the reoccurring sales of a forged painting. An individual purchased a painting from the Art and Design Center of New York City and brought it to an art expert for appraisal who determined the work was a forgery. The Art and Design Center refunded the money to the purchaser but then sold it to another individual. That person also had it evaluated by an expert who said it was a fake. The Center refunded the money to the second purchaser. Then an undercover investigator from the attorney general's office bought the same painting and the jig was up. The attorney general filed charges and the case was settled against the Center for various monetary charges (Department of Law, 2001).
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Forgery most often occurs with works of painting, sculpture, decorative art, and literature; less often with music. Plagiarism is more difficult to prove as fraud, since the possibility of coincidence must be weighed against evidence of stealing. Piracy is more often a business than an artistic fraud; it frequently occurs in the publication of editions of foreign books in countries that have no copyright agreement with the nation in which the work was copyrighted. A stage production, the reproduction of a painting, the performance of a musical composition, and analogous practices of other kinds of works without authorization and royalty payments also fall into this category.
Prosecution is also possible under state criminal laws, such as prohibitions against criminal fraud, or against the simulation of personal signatures. However, in order to trigger criminal liability under states' laws, the government must prove that the defendant had intent to defraud. The evidentiary burden, as in all criminal prosecutions, is high; proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" is required.[27]
Some forgers have created false paper trails relating to a piece, in order to make the work appear genuine. British art dealer John Drewe created false documents of provenance for works forged by his partner John Myatt, and even inserted pictures of forgeries into the archives of prominent art institutions.[11] In 2016, Eric Spoutz plead guilty to one count of wire fraud related to the sale of hundreds of falsely attributed artworks to American masters accompanied by forged provenance documents. Spoutz was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison and ordered to forfeit the $1.45 million he made from the scheme and pay $154,100 in restitution.[12]
Finally, under Guideline 6, the AML Guidelines provides that art businesses must maintain adequate records of their due diligence efforts. Perhaps stating the obvious, but perhaps also implicitly acknowledging the existence of practices by certain dealers, the AML Guidelines observe that “[a]ll documents issued by an Art Business in connection with a transaction (e.g. valuations, sale and purchase agreements, invoices, shipping documents, import / export declarations etc.) should be true, accurate and contemporaneous and represent the honestly held professional opinions of the Art Business.” Likewise, dealers “should refuse all requests from clients to alter, back date, falsify or otherwise provide incomplete or misleading documentation or information relating to a transaction. If there are legitimate reasons for altering a document (e.g. invoicing error etc.) the circumstances and justification should be fully documented and retained on file for future reference and audit.”
Within computer science, informatics uses the term "provenance"[33] to mean the lineage of data, as per data provenance, with research in the last decade extending the conceptual model of causality and relation to include processes that act on data and agents that are responsible for those processes. See, for example, the proceedings of the International Provenance Annotation Workshop (IPAW)[34] and Theory and Practice of Provenance (TaPP).[35] Semantic web standards bodies, including the World Wide Web Consortium in 2014, have ratified a standard data model for provenance representation known as PROV[36] which draws from many of the better-known provenance representation systems that preceded it, such as the Proof Markup Language and the Open Provenance Model.[37]

Sometimes, they give us works that great artists simply didn’t get around to making. If a fake is good enough to fool experts, then it’s good enough to give the rest of us pleasure, even insight. The late Swiss collector Ernst Beyeler called a fake Rothko from Queens a “sublime unknown masterwork” in 2005 and hung it in his namesake museum. Why not think of that picture as the sublime masterwork that Rothko happened not to have got around to? Is it a bad thing if thousands more people in China get to own works by the great modern master Qi Baishi — even if the works they own aren’t actually by him? In some ways, they are by him, in the profound sense that they almost perfectly capture his unique contribution to art. If they didn’t, no one would imagine he’d made them.

* Provenance must specifically describe the piece of art that's being offered for sale in order to be valid. It should contain important information including dimensions, medium, date of creation (if known), title (if known), and other relevant details. Documents that do not specifically describe the work of art in question do not constitute valid provenance.


Whether the seller agrees to take full legal responsibility for the accuracy of the provenance is crucial information for buyers in terms of their own due diligence obligations and their ability to rely on information provided by sellers. Making all of this clear in the sales contract is unquestionably in everyone’s interest, even if—much like a prenuptial agreement—it spoils some of the romance associated with the purchase of Fine Art.

Jack Flam should know. He is one of the world's top experts in Robert Motherwell and was friends with the artist for years. Robert Motherwell was the youngest of a group of famous American painters that included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, who pioneered a new style of American art known as abstract expressionism. After Robert Motherwell's death, Jack Flam became president of the foundation dedicated to his work, and was assembling a catalogue of all of Motherwell's paintings - what's known as a catalogue raisonne.
We’ll likely never know the provenance of the president’s purported Renoir, but Bloch’s is an example of the seldom-spoken yet widespread practice among institutions to forge famous pieces for collectors who’ve either donated or loaned the original works. In 2010, Henry and late wife Marion Bloch promised the Nelson-Atkins Museum their two-decade-old collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art. In 2015, two years before the Bloch Collection was slated to debut, the museum began duplicating the works, some in-house, some with external help.

As for you artists, firmly establishing yourself as link number one in the chain of provenance is essential. These days, proof of authenticity or authorship accompanying a work of art is more important than ever. In order to prevent unscrupulous sellers from trafficking in fakes, and avoid situations where people question your art, keep good records right from the start and provide some form of documentation with every artwork you produce. The last thing you want is people trying to figure out whether or not you actually created certain works, or contacting you with requests to authenticate works that have no accompanying paperwork or documentation. The bad news is that in the long run, repeated incidents surrounding undocumented art can actually compromise your market. So make sure there's never any doubt that ownership of your art begins with you. Read more about how to do that in this article about How to Authenticate Your Art.
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. The term dates to the 1780s in English. Provenance is conceptually comparable to the legal term chain of custody.
The 20th-century art market has favored artists such as Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Klee and Matisse and works by these artists have commonly been targets of forgery. These forgeries are typically sold to art galleries and auction houses who cater to the tastes of art and antiquities collectors; at time of the occupation of France by German forces during World War II, the painting which fetched the highest price at Drouot, the main French auction house, was a fake Cézanne.[4]
One of the more-complicated examples is that of the Getty kouros, an allegedly 6th-century-bce male sculpted figure owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that has long been suspected of being a modern forgery. The Getty paid a very high price for what it believed may have been the last remaining such figure on the art market only to find that the sculpture had stylistic irregularities that suggested that it could not be authentic. At the same time, scientific tests have not demonstrated that it is of modern origin, and some scholars have argued that stylistic anomalies do not prove that it is a fake. The Getty Villa exhibited the work in its galleries with a label that read: “about 530 bc or modern forgery.” However, the kouros was removed from view when the museum completed a yearlong renovation in 2018, with the director stating that the sculpture was fake.
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