Data provenance

For other uses, see Provenance (disambiguation).

Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", refers to the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object.[1] The term was originally mostly used in relation to works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including archaeology, paleontology, archives, manuscripts, printed books, and science and computing. The primary purpose of tracing the provenance of an object or entity is normally to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing, as far as practicable, its later history, especially the sequences of its formal ownership, custody, and places of storage. The practice has a particular value in helping authenticate objects. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, and the results of scientific tests may also be used to these ends, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation.

In archaeology (particularly North American archaeology and anthropological archaeology throughout the world), the term provenience is used in related but a subtly different sense to provenance. Archaeological researchers use provenience to refer to the three-dimensional location or find spot of an artifact or feature within an archaeological site,[2] whereas provenance covers an object's complete documented history. Ideally, in modern excavations, the provenience or find spot is recorded (even videoed) with great precision, but in older cases only the general site or approximate area may be known, especially when an artifact was found outside a professional excavation and its specific position not recorded. Any given antiquity may therefore have both a provenience (where it was found) and a provenance (where it has been since it was found). In some cases, especially where there is an inscription, the provenance may include a history that predates its burial in the ground, as well as those relating to its history after rediscovery.

Works of art and antiques

The provenance of works of fine art, antiques and antiquities is of great importance, especially to their owner. There are a number of reasons why painting provenance is important, which mostly also apply to other types of fine art. A good provenance increases the value of a painting, and establishing provenance may help confirm the date, artist and, especially for portraits, the subject of a painting. It may confirm whether a painting is genuinely of the period it seems to date from. The provenance of paintings can help resolve ownership disputes. For example, provenance between 1933 and 1945 can determine whether a painting was looted by the Nazis. Many galleries are putting a great deal of effort into researching the provenance of paintings in their collections for which there is no firm provenance during that period.[3] Documented evidence of provenance for an object can help to establish that it has not been altered and is not a forgery, a reproduction, stolen or looted art. Provenance helps assign the work to a known artist, and a documented history can be of use in helping to prove ownership. An example of a detailed provenace is given in the Arnolfini portrait.

The quality of provenance of an important work of art can make a considerable difference to its selling price in the market; this is affected by the degree of certainty of the provenance, the status of past owners as collectors, and in many cases by the strength of evidence that an object has not been illegally excavated or exported from another country. The provenance of a work of art may vary greatly in length, depending on context or the amount that is known, from a single name to an entry in a scholarly catalogue some thousands of words long.

An expert certification can mean the difference between an object having no value and being worth a fortune. Certifications themselves may be open to question. Jacques van Meegeren forged the work of his father Han van Meegeren (who in his turn had forged the work of Vermeer). Jacques sometimes produced a certificate with his forgeries stating that a work was created by his father. See Jacques van Meegeren.

John Drewe was able to pass off as genuine paintings, a large number of forgeries that would have easily been recognised as such by scientific examination. He established an impressive (but false) provenance and because of this galleries and dealers accepted the paintings as genuine. He created this false provenance by forging letters and other documents, including false entries in earlier exhibition catalogues.[4]

Researching the provenance of paintings

The objective of provenance research is to produce a complete list of owners (together, where possible, with the supporting documentary proof) from when the painting was commissioned or in the artist's studio through to the present time. In practice, there are likely to be gaps in the list and documents that are missing or lost. The documented provenance should also list when the painting has been part of an exhibition and a bibliography of when it has been discussed (or illustrated) in print.

Where the research is proceeding backwards, to discover the previous provenance of a painting whose current ownership and location is known, it is important to record the physical details of the painting - style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions, frame, etc.[5] The titles of paintings and the attribution to a particular artist may change over time. The size of the work and its description can be used to identify earlier references to the painting. The back of a painting can contain significant provenance information. There may be exhibition marks, dealer stamps, gallery labels and other indications of previous ownership. There may also be shipping labels. In the BBC TV programme Fake or Fortune? the provenance of the painting Bords de la Seine à Argenteuil was investigated using a gallery sticker and shipping label on the back. Early provenance can sometimes be indicated by a cartellino[6] added to a painting in a collection. However these can be forged and can become faded or be painted over.

Auction records are an important resource to assist in researching the provenance of paintings.

  • The Witt Library houses a collection of cuttings from auction catalogs which enables the researcher to identify occasions when a picture has been sold.
  • The Heinz Library at the National Portrait Gallery, London maintains a similar collection, but restricted to portraits.
  • The National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum has a collection of UK sales catalogues.[7]
  • The University of York is establishing a web site with on-line resources for investigating art history in the period 1660 - 1735.[8] This includes diaries, sales catalogues, bills, correspondence and inventories.
  • The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has a Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance (PSCP) which includes an on-line database, still being compiled, of auction and other records relating to painting provenance.[9]
  • The Frick Art Reference Library in New York has an extensive collection of auction and exhibition catalogues.[10]
  • The Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) has a number of databases related to artists from the Netherlands.[11]

If a painting has been in private hands for an extended period and on display in a


In transactions of old wine with the potential of improving with age, the issue of provenance has a large bearing on the assessment of the contents of a bottle, both in terms of quality and the risk of wine fraud. A documented history of wine cellar conditions is valuable in estimating the quality of an older vintage due to the fragile nature of wine.[14]


Provenance is a fundamental principle of archival science, referring to the individual, group, or organization that originally created or received the items in a collection, and to the items' subsequent chain of custody. According to archival theory and the principle of provenance, records of different provenance should be separated. Conversely, records which originate from a common source (or fonds) should be kept together – preferably physically, but, where that is not practicable, certainly intellectually in the way in which they are catalogued and arranged in finding aids – in accordance with what is sometimes termed the principle of archival integrity or respect des fonds. In archival practice, proof of provenance is provided by the operation of control systems that document the history of records kept in archives, including details of amendments made to them. The authority of an archival document or set of documents of which the provenance is uncertain (because of gaps in the recorded chain of custody) will be considered to be severely compromised.

The principles of archival provenance were developed in the 19th century by both French and Prussian archivists, and gained widespread acceptance on the basis of their formulation in the Manual for the arrangement and description of archives by Dutch state archivists Samuel Muller, J. A. Feith, and R. Fruin, published in the Netherlands in 1898 (often referred to as the Dutch Manual).[15]

Provenance is also the title of the journal published by the Society of Georgia Archivists.


In the case of books, the study of provenance refers to the study of the ownership of individual copies of books. It is usually extended to include study of the circumstances in which individual copies of books have changed ownership, and of evidence left in books that shows how readers interacted with them.[16][17]

Provenance studies may shed light on the books themselves, providing evidence of the role particular titles have played in social, intellectual and literary history. Such studies may also add to our knowledge of particular owners of books. For instance, looking at the books owned by a writer may help to show which works influenced him or her.

Many provenance studies are historically focused, and concentrated on books owned by writers, politicians and public figures. The recent ownership of books is studied, however, as is evidence of how ordinary or anonymous readers have interacted with books.[18][19]

Provenance can be studied both by examining the books themselves (for instance looking at inscriptions, marginalia, bookplates, book rhymes, and bindings) and by reference to external sources of information such as auction catalogues.[16]



Evidence of provenance can be of importance in archaeology. Fakes are not unknown and finds are sometimes removed from the context in which they were found without documentation, reducing their value to the world of learning. Even when apparently discovered in-situ archaeological finds are treated with caution. The provenance of a find may not be properly represented by the context in which it was found. Artifacts can be moved far from their place of origin by mechanisms that include looting, collecting, theft or trade and further research is often required to establish the true provenance of a find.


In paleontology it is recognised that fossils can also move from their primary context and are sometimes found, apparently in-situ, in deposits to which they do not belong, moved by, for example, the erosion of nearby but different outcrops. Most museums make strenuous efforts to record how the works in their collections were acquired and these records are often of use in helping to establish provenance.


In the geologic use of the term, provenance instead refers to the lithologic origin of a rock, most commonly in sedimentary rocks. It does not typically refer to the circumstances of the collection of the rock.

Seed provenance

Seed provenance refers to the specified area in which plants that produced seed are located or were derived. Local provenancing is a position maintained by ecologists that suggests that seeds should be planted of local provenance only. However, this view suffers from the adaptationist program - a view that populations are universally locally adapted.[20] It is maintained that local seed is best adapted to local conditions (local adaptation) and outbreeding depression will be avoided. Evolutionary biologists suggest that strict adherence to provenance collecting is not a wise decision because:

  1. Local adaptation is not as common as assumed.[21]
  2. Background population maladaptation can be driven by natural processes.[21]
  3. Human actions of habitat fragmentation drive maladaptation up and adaptive potential down.[22]
  4. Natural selection is changing rapidly due to climate change.[23] and habitat fragmentation
  5. Population fragments are unlikely to divergence by natural selection since fragmentation (<500 years). This leads to a low risk of outbreeding depression.[24]

Data provenance

Scientific research is generally held to be of good provenance when it is documented in detail sufficient to allow reproducibility.[25] Scientific workflows assist scientists and programmers with tracking their data through all transformations, analyses, and interpretations. Data sets are reliable when the process used to create them are reproducible and analyzable for defects.[26] Current initiatives to effectively manage, share, and reuse ecological data are indicative of the increasing importance of data provenance. Examples of these initiatives are National Science Foundation Datanet projects, DataONE and Data Conservancy.

Computers and law

The term provenance is used when ascertaining the source of goods such as computer hardware to assess if they are genuine or counterfeit. Chain of custody is an equivalent term used in law, especially for evidence in criminal or commercial cases.

Software provenance encompasses the origin of software and its licensing terms. For example, when incorporating a free, open source or proprietary software component in an application, one may wish to understand its provenance to ensure that licensing requirements are fulfilled and that other software characteristics can be understood.

Data provenance covers the provenance of computerized data. There are two main aspects of data provenance: ownership of the data and data usage. Ownership will tell the user who is responsible for the source of the data, ideally including information on the originator of the data. Data usage gives details regarding how the data has been used and modified and often includes information on how to cite the data source or sources. Data provenance is of particular concern with electronic data, as data sets are often modified and copied without proper citation or acknowledgement of the originating data set. Databases make it easy to select specific information from data sets and merge this data with other data sources without any documentation of how the data was obtained or how it was modified from the original data set or sets.

Secure Provenance refers to providing integrity and confidentiality guarantees to provenance information. In other words, secure provenance means to ensure that history cannot be rewritten, and users can specify who else can look into their actions on the object.[27]

See also



Provenance in book studies

  • Myers, Robin, Harris, Michael and Mandelbrote, Giles, eds. Books on the move: tracking copies through collections and the book trade. London: British Library, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7123-0986-8.
  • Pearson, David. Provenance Research in Book History: a Handbook. London: British Library, 1998. ISBN 978-0-7123-4598-9.
  • Shaw, David, J., ed. Books and Their Owners: Provenance Information and the European Cultural Heritage. London: Consortium of European Research Libraries, 2005. ISBN 0-9541535-3-7.
  • Shaw, David, J., ed. Imprints and Owners: Recording the Cultural Geography of Europe. London: Consortium of European Research Libraries, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9541535-6-4.

External links

  • Washington gives brief provenances for most featured works
  • EU Provenance Project - a technology project that sought to support the electronic certification of data provenance
  • the difference between provenience and provenance
  • DataONE
  • Data Conservancy
  • W3C Provenance Working Group
  • W3C Provenance Outreach Information
  • W3C PROV Implementations: Preliminary Analysis (by Khalid Belhajjame), 2013.
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