A Question of Provenance

Teri Horton and the Possible, Unknown Pollock Painting

Provenance is proof of authenticity or past ownership. In the art world provenance determines the authenticity of a piece of artwork. Scholars consider a painting or piece of artwork legitimate when its history, particularly, its origins are known and documented. A painting with an unclear provenance cannot trace its origins back to the artist, or a reputable contemporary of the artist.

paintingJackson Pollock (1912-1956) is an influential abstract expressionist American painter. He is one of the first painters to move his work from the easel and onto the floor. This step freed him to work on every aspect of his paintings at once. Pollock grew up in Arizona and later moved to New York where he studied at the Art Students League of New York under Thomas Hart Benton. He married Lee Krasner, another American artist and entered into an important association with patron Peggy Guggenheim.

Alfonso Ossorio, a fellow artist and patron described Pollock’s artistic journey as one that broke “…all the traditions of the past and unified them…” Pollock went “…beyond cubism, beyond Picasso and surrealism, beyond everything that had happened in art…his work expressed both action and contemplation.” Pollock is the originator of drip painting and action painting, a more immediate form of painting than traditional painting on an upright easel. Pollock produced approximately 30 major works during his career.

Teri Horton is a plain-speaking, uneducated truck driver. She spends much of her time dumpster diving. Nothing in her background makes her acceptable to the art world. She has no exposure to fine art and no training in recognizing Jackson Pollock’s work. Teri is an outsider trying to gain entry into a very insular world. She can’t speak the language. At the same time, she may be in possession of an unknown Pollock, a Pollock with no provenance. She can’t even verify the previous owner. Since the art world determines much of an artwork’s value by its provenance, the fact that Horton’s painting has no provenance is a tremendous obstacle for her to overcome.

Thomas Hoving is pompous, close-minded, and officious. It’s very hard to envision him as the head of a major museum. The documentary presents him in a single-faceted view, but even allowing for that, he seems very dogmatic. He does not believe Teri Horton has a Jackson Pollock because he can’t allow for the possibility that you could determine the legitimacy of artwork through something other than provenance. Using fingerprints or other forensic evidence as proof would make it unnecessary to have an expert in an artist’s painting technique; someone other than an art historian might be able to authenticate a painting. In addition, Hoving is not willing to consider that someone with Teri Horton’s personal background could recognize “fine art”.

The use of DNA and other forensic evidence can tie an artist to a particular piece of artwork. A fingerprint means the artist touched the canvas. Art historians can’t place many artworks directly into the hands of their creators. Forgers can forge signatures; they do it all the time. Forensic evidence will not replace provenance, but it can strengthen it.

I believe Teri should sell her painting. Accomplishing the sale would go far to lending her claim some legitimacy. It would also establish an unusual provenance for the painting. Obviously, someone thinks the painting is important, if he or she is willing to pay nine million dollars for it. In addition to giving the painting certain legitimacy, the money could definitely improve Teri’s standard of living. I believe the next owner will be in a position to demand a higher price for the painting. After all, the value increased for Teri from two million to nine million dollars. The new owner will also be able to point to the painting’s colorful past as evidence of it’s worth.

Provenance is a difficult thing to establish for any painting. Only 95 of the 159 paintings in the Toledo Museum of Art have signatures or stamps from the artists. In some of the paintings in the Museum’s collection the first “known” dates of ownership are almost 100 years after the creation of the painting, some dates are as late as 300 years. In other instances, scholars cannot speak definitively on the creation date. Creation dates can range as far apart as 25 years. A signed painting may have the first “known” date of ownership occurring 300 years later, as in the case of Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap (1600-16-25) by Pieter, the Younger Brueghel (1564-1638) which went directly from a New York dealer to the museum in 1954. Or, the Pastoral Landscape (1649) by Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683) with an earliest recorded owner date of 1861. These gaps in dating are common, particularly in the more ancient artworks.Save