Provenance Studies

This article contains information about Provenance Studies. While typically Provenance Studies is mentioned in relation to geological studies, I am interested in Historical Provenance Studies. Provenance Studies encompass all things provenance. This includes provenance research and the methods with which provenance research is conducted. Provenance research has mainly been developed in the field of Art History (especially Art History orbiting World War 2), but I am more interest in its applications to literary history.

Lessing (2000) reported that the topic of provenance can be politically charged, and that many of the archivists and curators which they reached out to were unwilling to have public discussions about it [5, p49].

It appears to me that one of the most recommended works for people wanting to learn about provenance research is Nancy H. Yeide’s The AAM Guide to Provenance Research (2001).


Oxford Languages (July 12th, 2020) defined provenance as “the place of origin or earliest known history of something”.

Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art defined provenance as “the history of ownership of an object, beginning with the artist and date of execution, and moving forward to the present day”.[2]

The International Foundation for Art Research communicated that “the provenance of a work of art is a historical record of its ownership”.[3, p1]

My own definition which I use for provenance is “the history of an item”. This includes a history of an item’s owners, its locations that is has been to, and the names of which it has been called.

Provenance Basics

“Following the rise of the history of the book in the 1980s and 1990s, provenance studies have become an important component in the work of social and cultural historians dealing with questions of readership and literacy.”
– Marieke van Delft[6, p.321]

Pollard et al (2018) reported that “The concept of provenance has had a remarkable strangehold on the discipline since its first conception in the 1860s”.[4, p.178] I think they are talking about the discipline of archaeology, but I’m unclear on if they mean to say the discipline of archaeology started in the 1860s or if they mean to say that the concept of provenance was first conceived in the 1860s.

M. R. James (1899) reported that he was “anxious to set the example” in studying the provenance for a complete collection of manuscripts. The only other attempt which he recognized that aimed in the same direction was made by Rev. W. D. Macray in Annals of the Bodleian Library. James then indirectly says that “every one of the older collections of manuscripts in England” have not yet had the provenances of the MSS in their collections investigated.[1]

Overmeir & Doak (1996) reported that only 33% of 248 American libraries with rare book collections claimed to “maintain provenance indexes of some sort”.

The majority of items contain holes in their chain of ownership.[2], [3, p.1] The reasons for gaps in the provenance of an item include lost documentation, lost oral history, and/or a sale without record.[2] Even if records of ownership do exist, they might have “unclear, inadequate, conflicting, or incorrect information”.[3, p.1] There’s also the possibility that a forger has faked evidence of ownership, which further complicates the matter of establishing provenance.

“Complete provenance is the exception, not the rule.” – Cornell University’s Johnson Museum of Art[2]

The IFAR lists 3 main things that make provenance research important; it helps establish authenticity, it helps establish value, and it helps establish ownership for legal reasons.[3, p2]

Evidence of Ownership

“The physical evidence of ownership takes many forms, such as bookplates, signatures, inscriptions, stamps, marginal annotations, and branded bindings.” – Overmeir & Doak (1996)[8, p.91]

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[1] –

[2] – – Accessed July 12th, 2020.

[3] – – Accessed July 13th, 2020.

[4] – “Summary: Beyond Provenance?” Beyond Provenance: New Approaches to Interpreting the Chemistry of Archaeological Copper Alloys, by A.M. Pollard et al., Leuven University Press, Leuven (Belgium), 2018, pp. 187–192. JSTOR, Accessed 13 July 2020.

[5] – Lessing, Lauren. “Problems in Provenance Research.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, vol. 19, no. 2, 2000, pp. 49–51. JSTOR, Accessed 13 July 2020.

[6] – Van Delft, Marieke. “CERL’s Work and Vision for Provenance Research II: The Provenance Digital Archive in CERL.” La Bibliofilía, vol. 117, no. 3, 2015, pp. 321–324. JSTOR, Accessed 13 July 2020.

[7] – Pearson, David. “Exploring and Recording Provenance: Initiatives and Possibilities.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 91, no. 4, 1997, pp. 505–515. JSTOR, Accessed 13 July 2020.

[8] – Accessed 2 August 2020.

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