What is Provenance
by Dr. William A. Emboden, F.L.S.
The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines provenance as “origin, source” and nothing more.  
This appears to be a fine approach to a word that has been made complex by auction
houses in order to impress clients.  How does the name of a famous person or dealer
become provenance?  Why does one of the major auction houses state to collectors:  “We
are not selling art, we are selling provenance?”  This is easily translated into “We are
selling names of individuals and galleries that will impress our clients.”  What ever
happened to “origin”?

Most art has been through a number of hands unless it is contemporary.  These
successive owners add nothing to the value of a piece other than their name or title.  Thus
“provenance” becomes previous ownership, and the purchaser is supposed to believe that
a “person of quality” would not own a fake or a lesser work of art.

A real problem arises in African (Sub-Saharan) art.  Its origins are almost always obscure
unless one knows the person who made a tribal acquisition.  Tribes do not often keep
records of the creator of a work, the owner(s) or the year that the work was created.  Being
a scientist I am aware of the C14 tests that date the age of wood but not the time a piece
was made.

I became a collector of African art because I found it compelling and I had the good fortune
of working with William Moore whose demise ended the life of a great African collector and
teacher.  My other mentor was David Stuart whose gallery in Los Angeles was covered by
the international news media.  Through them I got a feeling for the nuances of African art.  
It propelled me to build a collection and a library.

My own collection began in 1962 when as a graduate student at the University of California
in Los Angeles I left for a summer trip to Paris and Belgium.  There I encountered African
art dealers who are still in business and from them I learned a great deal.  They bought
from flea markets, private collectors and made trips to Africa.  Most often their works came
from European estates.

The introduction of African art to Europe began in the 17th century, but it was not until
1905 that it was treated as anything other than artifact.  Vlaminc acquired a mask which he
passed on to Picasso who became very excited about the simplicity and form embodied in
the work.  They visited The Trocodero (Museum of Man) in Paris and suddenly African
artifact became African art.  Picasso went so far as to make African totems and employ the
themes of African masks in his paintings.  This is well known to most collectors.  It was the
essence of a work of art that compelled me, and still does.  Many wealthy collectors did not
know what they were buying.  It was chic to have African statues in one’s home.  The lure
of the exotic overcame the aesthetic in many instances.

In manor houses, the personnel cleaned, waxed, buffed and polished pieces regularly.  
This took them far from the way that they appeared in Africa.  If the African intent were to
finish a piece with a fine surface, shea butter was used.  But in other instances blood,
urine, hair, feathers, millet beer milk, etc. were poured  upon a figure as sacrificial offerings,
and no person in Africa would think of removing such a patina.  European collectors
wanted their African statues as polished as their furniture so various oils and/or waxes
were applied, metal ornaments were buffed and the result was that which we see so often
in catalogues today.  It is false representation of African sculpture.

Granted there is the other side of the coin in which recent forgeries are treated with mud,
stains, blood, etc. in order to attempt to establish age and authenticity by another form of
deceit.  There are still wonderful craftsmen in Africa and they get all of the African
catalogues and prices realized.  They can produce remarkable replicas and provide age
marks and every indication of considerable antiquity.

Assertions made by auction houses that their works come from an “estate collection” or
“passionate collector” are meaningless and yet such characterizations appear in catalogue
prefaces.  One of the most amazing is “He had his epiphany as a collector….” Or his
collecting “helped shape the taste of an entire generation in African art.”  A bit over the top
would be a kind rejoinder to such absurd assertions (which have appeared in very recent

Connoisseurship can come only through the knowledge of a work of art.  This will not be
assisted by, or enhanced by, a list of previous owners or dealers.  Likewise the information
that a work has been published adds little credence in that collectors pay for the publication
of catalogues and books in many instances.  University exhibitions are often predicated
upon an agreement with the donor that works exhibited will ultimately be given over to the

Citation of a museum as provenance can mean that the work was exhibited in their
museum for sale, since most have sale galleries.

What can we say of citations such as “collected before 1921?”  This is information given
over by the seller and is meaningless unless accompanied by papers and photographs to
substantiate this assertion.

The citation “Cf. (confertus) simply means compare this price to that which is cited (often in
an earlier sales catalogue.)  Catalogues that bear the caveat that they are not responsible
for the authenticity of works represented should be warning enough.  Also take care to note
if the seller has an interest in the piece.  Sometimes ownership may be that of the auction

Beware of :  “From a very prestigious collector”,  “from familial descent”, “Ancienne
Collection de” _____ means the former owner or owners and not that the piece has some
ancient credentials, “very similar to characteristics of other pieces from this region”,
“acquired by _____who represented _____ who held a prestigious position in _____”.

This could fill pages, but is intended to present the foolishness of that which passes for
“provenance” in major catalogues.

To auction houses:  Offer your clients works that are worthy to stand on their own as art.  
Do not try to justify or obfuscate by previous ownership.  Many of these individuals had no
idea of what they owned, whether it was representative of the finest carving or was ever
used in a ceremonial context.  Buyers demand that purveyors play fair in this market.

It is common knowledge that certain individuals collect names of galleries that existed some
decades ago and are no longer in business.  
From these they draw their citation of provenance.  This is very difficult to challenge as
records were rarely kept or have now disappeared.

This leaves us with the alternatives of utilizing the expertise of those who have spent time
in the field and know authentic works from those currently being created (some of which
are excellent as carvings.)  Another source of expertise is those who are in museums with
large collections of earlier periods.  Working with these curators one finds that they detect
many subtle differences in terms of age and tribal characteristics.

Carbon 14 tests will reveal the age of the wood and not the carving.  This test is based
upon the assumption that the tree was carved at the time that it was cut down.  Yes this is
frequently the case, but it is lucrative for the excellent carvers of today to use old wood that
has been preserved in fine condition to imitate a very old piece.  In the same way old
pieces of Quartz from shards of Nok works are incorporated into new clay pieces and give
false readings.

All of the techniques used in the past to create African sculpture are available today.  Most
auction houses cannot afford to hire experts and will move a person from one department
to another.  An expert in 18th century paintings usually knows nothing of African art.  Now
that works of African sculpture have been appraised at over one million dollars, the market
of even a decade ago has changed.

The “miraculous” inherent in African art is now beginning to reveal itself to western
collectors; both of 20th century art and of African pieces.  These African sculptures are no
longer curiosities.  Their sophistication in form seems to negate the term “primitive” which
has a pejorative connotation even though current art historians are trying to legitimize it.  
“Tribal Art” has found favor more generally and is the name of the leading magazine of
such arts.

Magnificent books devoted to specific tribes and their art works, along with superb essays,
have also educated many of us beyond that which we can derive from earlier books with
poor illustrations and which offer embarrassing texts.  Hence the collector should be more
astute than in the past.

Collecting in Africa does not permit the removal of early works (pre 1973) and those with
skins, fur, bones, certain shells, etc.  This leaves the younger collector to pursue museum
exhibits, special tribal fairs and dealers who are reliable; certainly not all are.  The African
scholar Willet has advocated acquisition of any works that are now in danger.

Thus, provenance must be derived from a number of sources, the most important being the
work itself and not previous asserted ownership or references to related works.  

A reason to beware of experts:  our courts use expert witnesses frequently.  I have served
in this capacity on numerous occasions.  At my request I asked one of the judges to give
me a definition of “expert witness.”  The reason for asking was in order to inform the jury
with respect to that individual and information being presented to them.  The response was
“An individual who knows more than the general public about that which is in question.”  
Here is an example of those “experts” sent out by auction houses to assay African
sculpture or any other work.

Courts have done a fine job in appraising experts, and there is no reason why this should
not extend beyond the courtroom.

Instead of saying derogatory things about a work, they should merely indicate that it is their
belief that the piece in question is not one that their auction house could effectively
represent, or a similar statement.  Yes, they may know more than the general public, but in
this instance a collector is not the general public.  Collectors honed their skills in diverse
ways so that they will not buy works that are fraudulent, illegal or unfairly priced.

By contrast it is the goal of an auction house to realize the maximum price for a work
without transgressing any of the above.  They are often in need of information that does
not exist.  This is why experts who are also connoisseurs/collectors are needed.  

The use of the term “runners” for those who go to Africa to collect is derogatory.  Many
whom I know risk their lives in remote areas purchasing African statues and masks.  They
are a cut apart from the dealers in America who buy faux works for tourists that are
represented as authentic works.  Yes, they are made by Africans, but usually not those of
the tribe represented in the work.  They have never been used in ceremonies and have no
context.  These go into crates shipped to American and European dealers who have not
seen the pieces and buy the lot wholesale.

Perhaps even more offensive are those dealers, represented in exhibitions and magazines
of tribal art who buy from the warehouses in New York.  These are some of the biggest
names in the African Art market.  They go unquestioned.  Many famed dealers are involved
in such purchases.  They have impeccable taste, but buy from those they call “runners.”  I
cannot use names for reason of lawsuits, but most serious collectors know who they are.  
Their gallery names appear in catalogues as a part of “provenance.”

The same works are purchased by ordinary collectors and are dismissed by major auction
houses as “without provenance.”  And yet they are from the same source.

Let’s put an end to selling African Art as outlined above, and let the works speak for
themselves for those who admire and collect them.

Written by - Dr. William A. Emboden, F.L.S., who gave me permission to make this accessible to the public via my
Rand African Art
home page