UK: Provenance – Its Value To Art Collectors, Dealers, And Cultural Institutions

Last Updated: 24 April 2018
Article by Alan Eccles

Provenance illuminates fundamental chapters in an art object's life by asking: Where did it come from? Who created and/or commissioned it? Who has owned it (dates and places)? How has its ownership been transferred over time (sale, donation, bequest, theft or looting)? Provenance is also the methodological process through which this information is found – the utilised resources, their credibility and verifiability. This research sheds light on the complex workings of the trade in art and cultural property. Its discoveries continue to show that there are many new things to consider, processes to undertake and laws to abide as a private collector, dealer, or public steward of art and artefacts.

Acquiring, lending and deaccessioning

Increasingly, museums and galleries are implementing standards of due diligence which necessitate the plotting out of provenance before proceeding with acquisitions or incoming loans. It is useful to not only verify that an object left its country of origin or export lawfully, but provenance can also be a key factor in authentication and cultural attribution, thus affecting whether or not the transfer should be carried out, and what the most appropriate context of display will be.

Deaccessioning art without a justifiable reason, or in breach of donor restrictions, can have serious ramifications for an institution. A good example is Northampton Borough Council's contested sale of an ancient Egyptian sculpture of the scribe Sekhemka, whereby loss of public favour accreditation and future funding opportunities were all at stake. On the other hand, a museum should strongly consider deaccessioning anything within its collection that is connected to illicit or illegal activity.

museums and galleries that hold their collections in public trust, the retention of art that was illegally exported or imported, looted from archaeological sites, or seized during World War II has been condemned at local and international levels. Numerous transnational partnerships, such as those set up by the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and the Washington Conference Principles of 1998, were formed to combat the acceptance of this conduct and spur investigations into the origins of collections.

No such thing as a bona fide purchaser

Scotland has not recognised the notion of 'market overt' (scrapped more generally in the sale of goods legislation the UK in the 1990s) or the ability for purchasers of stolen objects to assume good title in the absence of knowledge of the theft. Without this immunity, individuals and organisations are vulnerable to counter claims of ownership with no guarantee of compensation. Taking the opportunity, albeit bittersweet, to investigate the provenance of a collection can help with the assessment of the assets' liquidity; confirming the ability to consign a work at public auction, or make a philanthropic loan or donation, without the fear of a restitution request flagging up.

Three years ago Glasgow City Council was involved in a restitution claim surrounding a 16th century Swiss tapestry fragment that formed part of the Burrell Collection. Provenance research revealed that the artwork was originally owned by a German-born Jewish woman, but it had been forced into sale by the Nazis. It ended up in the English art market where it was purchased by Sir William Burrell in 1938. Ultimately, Glasgow agreed to compensate the original owner's heirs with a payment reflecting the current market value of the tapestry.

The UK Government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport's Spoliation Advisory Panel was established to help facilitate resolutions such as this. Over the years, it has administered the return of 23 cultural objects stolen or forced into sale by Nazis from public collections around the UK.

Greater certainty in Scotland on protection for ownership over time?

In a recent interview in the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland, reflecting on the contribution to Scots law of Professor George Gretton upon his retirement from the University of Edinburgh, Professor Gretton said that his "wish list for [law reform] action includes the Scottish Law Commission's... [report] on prescription and title to moveables: "This is something very important to the art world, museum world, galleries, collectors, auction houses. Our law is just a mess, and nothing has been done."

While the proposals in this area rejected a special rule for 'cultural objects' (partly due to the difficulties of a clear definition of such objects), as a general piece of law reform it would give clarity on ownership of items. Under the proposed rules, a person would gain ownership of property which had been in their possession for 20 years, dependent on certain conditions being met, in particular the person being in good faith and lacking negligence. This would continue to provide no protection for stolen goods. Perhaps interestingly in the context of works of art, the proposed rules would have effect where Scots law was the applicable law. If the item had been stolen or misappropriated in another country, Scots law would not apply and notwithstanding 20 years possession, title would not pass to the current holder – the law of that other country would govern the position.

Benefits of provenance research and dealings in well-documented art

The acceptance of provenance research as a legitimate aspect of managing art has afforded individuals, institutions, and entire nations the ability to reflect on and improve their collecting practices.

At the very basis, if you don't know where a work originated, or when it left the country or individual with most recent title to it, the object's authenticity and legality are in question. While not all poorly documented art is fake, stolen or looted, those that are fake, stolen, or looted will have no ownership trail or a falsified one. Thus, greater regard for provenance is a means of enhancing professional standards, ensuring the cautious and purposeful spending of funds, and fulfilling ethical obligations implicit to holding art in trust. It is also a mechanism to ensure that the domestic and international trade in cultural property is conducted with integrity, by redressing past injustices and fostering respect between communities.

This update was written by Brieanah Gouveia with additional material from Alan Eccles. Brieanah is an Art History MSc student at the University of Glasgow, specialising in antiquities trafficking and cultural patrimony law.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

In association with
Related Topics
Related Articles
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Mondaq Free Registration
Gain access to Mondaq global archive of over 375,000 articles covering 200 countries with a personalised News Alert and automatic login on this device.
Mondaq News Alert (some suggested topics and region)
Select Topics
Registration (please scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of

To Use you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.


The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.


Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions