Provenance – Definition, Books, Art, and Antiques

A book’s provenance is a copy’s individual history, from the moment it leaves the printing press until the moment it comes into your hands. Determining provenance is rarely possible, but books may include indicative items such as bookplates, inscriptions, or owner names. Some also have a record of their provenance included within the book itself or recorded separately.

Provenance is rarely anything more than a curiosity or interesting historical footnote; it doesn’t typically add to the value of a copy except in rare circumstances, such as ownership by a famous person or library. Sometimes significant value can be added to a book if its provenance can be traced to the author via association (a copy that belonged to someone close to the author in some way) or presentation (a copy the author gave to someone). Presentation in particular, especially if the inscription is long or highly individualized, can skyrocket a book’s price and desirability.

Provenance, from the French provenir, “to come from”, means the origin, or the source, of something, or the history of the ownership or location of an object, especially a work of art, or some object of value such as is found in archaeology, or paleontology, or some document, such as a manuscript, or even an item of literature in the broadest sense, including a first edition of a very rare published work. The primary purpose of provenance is to confirm the time, place, and if appropriate the person responsible, for the creation, production or discovery of the object. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, written and verbal records and the results of various kinds of scientific tests are often used to help establish provenance.

In North American archaeology, and to a lesser extent in anthropological archaeology throughout the world, the term provenience is sometimes used instead. Usually the two terms are synonymous; however, some researchers use provenience to refer only to the exact location in a site where an artifact was excavated, in contrast to provenance which includes the artifact’s complete documented history.

Seed provenance refers to the specified area in which the plants that produced the seed are located. Ecologists maintain that planting seeds of the correct provenance is important for conserving the local genetic diversity.

Arts and antiques

The provenance of works of fine art, antiques and antiquities often assumes great importance. Documented evidence of provenance for an object can help to establish that it has not been altered and is not a forgery, reproduction, stolen or looted art. Knowledge of provenance can help to assign the work to a known artist and a documented history can be of use in helping to prove ownership.

The quality of provenance of an important work of art can make a considerable difference to its selling price in the market; this is affected by the degree of certainty of the provenance, the status of past owners as collectors, and in many cases by the strength of evidence that an object has not been illegally excavated or exported from another country. The provenance of a work of art may be recorded in various forms depending on context or the amount that is known, from a single name to an entry in a full scholarly catalogue several thousand words long.

In transactions of old wine with the potential of improving with age, the issue of provenance has a large bearing on the assessment of the contents of a bottle, both in terms of quality and the risk of wine fraud. A documented history of storage conditions is valuable in estimating the quality of an older vintage due to the fragile nature of wine.

In recent years, special antique fairs have been held and broadcast on television. Auction houses must first determine if an item is in fact what it appears to be before it is placed on the auction block. Other TV shows feature experts who help everyday people determine the value of artifacts they have at home.


Evidence of provenance can be of importance in the fields of archaeology and palaeontology. Fakes are not unknown and finds are sometimes removed from the context in which they were found without documentation, reducing their value to the world of learning. Even when discovered apparently in-situ archaeological finds must sometimes be treated with caution. The provenance of a find may not be properly represented by the context in which it was found. Artifacts can be moved far from their place of origin by mechanisms that include looting, collecting, theft or trade and further research is often required to establish the true provenance of a find. Fossils can also move from their primary context and are sometimes found, apparently in-situ, in geological deposits to which they do not belong, moved by, for example, the erosion of nearby but geologically different outcrops.

Most museums make strenuous efforts to record how the works in their collections were acquired and these records are often of use in helping to establish provenance.

Scientific research is generally held to be of good provenance when it is documented in detail sufficient to allow reproducibility.


Provenance is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, group, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. According to archival theory and the principle of provenance, records of different provenance should be separated.

In archival practice, proof of provenance is provided by the operation of control systems that document the history of records kept in archives, including details of amendments made to them. It was developed in the nineteenth century by both French and Prussian archivists.


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