Provenance matters: How proof of ownership weighs in on value of art

A work by V S Gaitonde that is up for auction at the upcoming Saffronart sale
You could be forgiven for believing that anything associated with the fugitive Nirav Modi would be assumed to be tainted — and you would be wrong. When the Enforcement Directorate hired a private auction house to put Modi’s impressive art collection under the hammer, it found ready buyers, and the sale grossed Rs 54.84 crore. A subsequent sale that included some works of art as well as the family’s collection of bags and jewellery did just as well: Rs 53.45 crore. Warped? Not really. It all boiled down to one thing — provenance.

 Who a work of art belonged to and where it was kept matters as much as the quality of the work and the identity of the artist. Provenance is the new hero. Proof of previous ownership by acknowledged art experts or well-known members of society attracts exemplary prices. It’s getting tougher to sell property where previous ownership cannot be established, or is disputed. Proof of it can help increase prices by as much as 30 per cent, say experts. In times to come, provenance-shy works will find it harder to benefit from escalatory trends. 

The best such credentials belong to art institutions like state-owned museums or the Lalit Kala Akademi, but their works are not on sale. Nor do organisations such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research trade their collection. Corporate collections make the grade, as do private collectors, but while an ITC or Air India may not leverage that liquidity (though parts of the latter have allegedly gone missing), individual collectors — or their heirs — have opted to go to the market with whole or part collections: Davida and Chester Herwitz, E Schlesinger, Jehangir Nicholson, Nandalal Bose’s grandson Supratik Bose, Amrita Jhaveri, Jane and Kito de Boer. Not only are these seen as rock-solid provenances, the works have a value for being part of collections put together by collectors whose “eye” has earned them unflinching respect. 

A case in point may be made for Masanori Fukuoka, who  gathered an impressive collection of 20th century Indian art. This formed the crux of his Glenbarra Art Museum in Japan. When he sold some of those works through Pundole’s earlier this month, several records were claimed, among them for J Swaminathan (Rs 9.5 crore) and V S Gaitonde (Rs 32 crore). If one reason was the high quality of works being made available for the market, the other was a distinguished provenance. 


This is no mere eyewash. The upcoming Saffronart sale is expected to break the Gaitonde record for its association with Sabira Merchant whose ownership of it lends the work credence. The forthcoming Sotheby’s auction of Danish collector Gunnar Hansen’s Indian art collected over a two-decade posting with Larsen & Toubro in Mumbai is expected to do well as much for the quality of works as their provenance.

Provenances are becoming important also because the same paintings are now coming up more frequently for sale — leveraged for their investment value. Art intelligence firm Artery India, which tracks some of these prices, attests to the financial gains achieved from such transactions — F N Souza’s La Place Town Square, for instance, painted in 1955, was first auctioned in 2010 for Rs 37.5 lakh, in 2014 for Rs 72 lakh, and more recently, in 2019, for Rs 1.5 crore. The provenances collected through each such open sale adds to the value of the work. 

Not all multiple sales are publicly documented, as some may go through private deals or galleries. This makes the task of providing provenances all the more critical. Galleries and dealers may not always provide the identities of the sellers to protect their bonafide interests.  Simply stating “Distinguished Gentleman, Mumbai” or “Prominent Collector, Kolkata” may not suffice for the buyer who may want proof of the work belonging to said people, photographs of the work on display, or published references where available. Given the recent trend of rising prices, collectors are well advised to keep all documents and certificates regarding proof of sale for future use as provenance. 
Many have tried to explain the Nirav Modi art sale away as one of ghoulish interest or vicarious pleasure. The truth is that it was neither. His collection had two strong elements. One, it consisted of iconic works and was inherently important for its own sake. Two, the works had been checked by experts for authenticity and, probably, provenance. Even if the latter was missing in a few cases, Modi’s ownership — ironically ratified by the Enforcement Directorate — provided the works an impeccable provenance: as blue-bloodied as it could get in the rarefied chambers of high art. 

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