Provenance is a fancy word to describe past ownership of a work of art. And it's obvious (though not always understandable to me) that something that was the property of a famous person will sell for a lot of money. People will buy all sorts of junk that belonged to a famous actor or singer and pay crazy money for it. That's called being a nerd. In a way, provenance is just the politically correct way to say the exact same thing for art collectors 😉
When you think about it, it's a little bit insulting for the artist that the monetary value attached to one of her works depends as much (or more) on who has owned it as on her own artistic genius and hard work ... How can we possibly justify that?
Well ... not so fast. While a few collectors are unappreciative investors and a minority of others are just rich, uneducated, gits, the vast majority are genuine art lovers. And assembling a collection is as much a work of art (a single, life-long, work of art) as any other more traditional artistic endeavour. When a serious collector acquires a piece from an artist, he/she imparts additional meaning to it. The meaning originating from the artist is complemented by the meaning added by the collector.
A serious collection is all about values and meaning. Corporate collections are assembled to humanise a large company, to tell a story about its origins, what its founders are attached to, in spite of heading a huge machine, what the culture is like inside. Private collections are even more personal but every bit as much about what matters to the owner. The discerning curation process of either, imparts additional value to the paintings and photographs in the collection.
In the insider art market, two identical prints from the same series with different provenances (one from the MOMA, the other from a lesser known collector, for instance) will often fetch different prices on the secondary market. We know that.
But, in our case, say a local museum acquired one of your prints. This would elevate the value of the other editions of that print somewhat, even though their provenance isn't the same. The added credibility that goes to the artist, for being collected in a prestigious setting, benefits the rest of her work. So, if that's the case for you, never forget to mention it and account for it in your price calcuations. Also: congratulations 🙂 🙂 🙂
But provenance doesn't stop there. Other factors determine how sought after an artist is. Who the artist studied under also matters. The Bechers created a real lineage, for example (a brand). The strength of their vision and teaching produced a whole string of artists with very consistent worldview and styles, yet each with distinct personalities and visions: Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Jörg Sasse, ...
Pedigree such as this matters because it is reassuring. Markets always seek reassurance. A teacher with lots of successful students will bestow a reassuring prestige to others, even if not all become famous. Consistency also benefits from the vision of a strong teacher. While all the photographers cited in the previous paragraph have explored different subject matter and style, there is a visible commonality, a shared DNA, that finds its origins in the teachings of the Bechers. John Baldessari played a similar role at Calarts and UCLA, more recently. Learning about photography is what most separates amateur photographers (who mostly obsess about gear) and real artists (who mostly obsess about crafting images in the style of ...). It is the one major difference between insider art and outsider art. Without that formal education, you can mostly forget about ever entering the gallery market. (worry not, though, that's what Phr is here for 🙂 )
Who represents you is also important. Very powerful galleries such as Marian Goodman or Gagosian will always ensure their artists reach top prices. Phr is nowhere near this level of prestige and influence, nor does it aspire to follow the same rules. But it's a lot better than being alone. And its impact will only grow in time if all represented artists do stick together and produce high quality work. Whenever a Phr member does good (exhibition, sale, prize), the provenance of every other member benefits.
So, where do you start with provenance, when you're not trained by a renowned scholar, not represented by a powerful gallery, not famous, not collected by famous institutions or famous personalities? Simple: start with a certificate of authenticity with each and everyone of the photographs you sell. This will not bring you instant fame (statistically, nothing will) but it will attest to your seriousness and to the origin of the photographs. Two years in, when your fame and prices have risen, you'll be super happy to have started with best practises 🙂
Give yourself a zero if you've never sold a print. It's OK, 99% of us are there too. A one if you are starting out but are using a good certificate of authenticity. Then, add points for acquisitions by interesting personalities and institutions, exhibitions ... Don't overshoot 😉 A 9 is for someone in Moma/Marian Goodman.