Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Provenance of prints and maps

Anyone who has read about the huge prices on oil paintings will have heard of the importance of their provenance. The provenance of a item is a record of its ownership/location since it was first created. This is important for some expensive items such as paintings mostly to establish their authenticity. As a painting can be reproduced by a skilled forger, knowing that the painting was, say, in a family estate since it was originally purchased from the painter, gives one assurance that it is an original.

Provenance can also be important if the item in question was owned by someone famous. So, the earrings worn by Katherine Hepburn in a famous movie would be worth more than the same items never owned by anyone famous, so having a solid provenance can be important in established their value.

Interestingly, rarely does provenance matter for antique maps and prints. For the vast majority of such items, not only is the provenance not important, but it is unknown. A dealer might know the immediately previous owner of something in her stock, but almost never any of the owners before that. There are a number of reasons for this relative lack of importance of provenance for antique maps and prints.

The main reason for that is that the authenticity of the items is determined not by tracking their ownership since creation, but rather simply by looking at the physical objects. If the process is right and if the paper is right, then the print is almost certainly authentic. It would be possible, by getting hold of old paper and using the proper process to create the object, to fake an antique prints or map, but prints and maps usually do not have the value to warrant the effort it would take to do this. When some antique maps started getting very expensive towards the end of the 20th century, some pretty good fakes started appearing, but these could be identified by a close physical examination. There are also some known "good" fakes of some of the old master prints, but such good fakes are very rare in the antique print and map world. Because of this, the main purpose of provenance just does not apply to most old prints and maps.

Secondly, in very, very few cases is the provenance known. Unlike paintings, prints were rarely considered "important" enough to be tracked and recorded through the years. Much like the history of most books, people bought prints and maps for decoration or interest, but didn't write down or pass on the history of that purchase for future generations. It is very rare that someone who owns a print can tell you its provenance beyond perhaps the person they got it from.

There are a few cases where a print was owned by someone famous or, perhaps, appeared in a movie, and that can add some value, but rarely a lot, so again that provenance is relatively unimportant.


  1. Hi there, I appreciate all of the info you are distributing in your blog. I was wondering if it is possible to repair surface scratches in a chromolithograph? A friend of mine found a Paul Kane lithograph ‘The Death of Big Snake’ In an old frame. It is quite yellowed and has some surface scratches right through the coloured layer. Can this be repaired?

    1. Once the image has been scraped away, all you can do is replace it with new color. Whatever color you use, it will not be the same process as was originally used, but if done skillfully, it will can improve the appearance of the print.