Provenance and authentication are central issues when it comes to the transactional side of art law. Folks buying, transferring, or insuring any artwork want to know that the piece is the real deal. This goes beyond the basic human desire to know the truth about art and extends to a number of legal questions. Legal counsel for art transactions will want the parties to be aware of how these three issues may affect their choices.


As happens in nearly all areas of the law, an art attorney always wants to know what they and others can document. Ideally, there are signatures tracing a chain of custody all the way back to the artist. Receipts from trusted sellers are also excellent for provenance. Similar documents from estates, trusts, public museums, and other legally reputable sources are great, too. Any authenticated attestation from the artist is superb.

The work of an art lawyer during a transaction isn't that different from an attorney handling a real estate transaction. Legal counsel for art transactions will assemble all the supporting documents for the provenance of a piece. If there are disagreements among the parties, they will have to hash out what they can agree on.


For many works of art, the provenance isn't always that detailed. Some artworks have long and incomplete histories involving sales, estates, transfers, and more. Every time a war breaks out, you can be assured some works of art will go missing. The disruptions can often make it tough to verify the provenance of a piece when it resurfaces.

You may, however, still be able to authenticate a piece. An art lawyer may contact several researchers who specialize in dealing with a particular artist, genre, movement, medium, or period. They can look at a piece of work down to the level of its materials, such as examining the types of oils used on a painting and the artist's brush strokes. Each researcher can provide a report explaining what they've seen that might indicate or refute that a piece is authentic.


Ideally, the two sides will agree on the quality of the provenance and the level of possible authentication. An art attorney can draft a contract, and counsel for the other party can review it. If everyone is comfortable with the characterization of a piece, they can add the supporting documents as supplements to the contract. Everyone can sign the contract, agree to authenticity and provenance, and complete the transfer of the piece.

For more information, contact an art attorney near you.