Finding the ownership of a famous artwork, while a common query, is not always easily accomplished. Some works are owned by public institutions, others by private entities and individuals. Even when a work is publicly owned, there is not always indexing or documentation for its whereabouts.
An individual’s reasons for wanting to know, who owns a given artwork can vary from simply wanting to visit and view the artwork in-person to wanting to establish the copyright for the purpose of reproducing the work. In both of these instances the individual is interested in who or what institution owns the artwork now.
A much more complicated form of ownership research goes into the work of provenance. This aims to not only document who owns the work now, but who are all the past owners of a particular artwork, ideally tracing a direct line from the artist’s hands to each consecutive owner, therefore proving that the work is an original. In the case of the most renowned artists, this task is often accomplished detailed in a catalogue raisonné.
Tracing such ownership can be a complicated process as artworks transfer between private hands and public institutions, but the following library resources, websites and research strategies may serve as a guide:
Strategy 1-- Locate the work in the permanent collection of a museum or gallery using resources such as the free website Artcyclopedia.com or the library’s online subscription database CAMIO, Catalog of Art Museum Images Online. You will need your library card and PIN to sign in.
Strategy 2 -- Consult reputable research institutions known for their provenance resources such as The Frick Collection and The Getty Research Institute.
Strategy 3 -- The Benezit Dictionary of Artists also includes information about holdings in museum collections and historical auction results.
Strategy 4 -- Consult our library’s collection of cumulative auction listings such as Davenport's Art Reference and Price Guide and Art Sales Index, to find possible sale date and auction house. Buyers will not be listed but might be obtained by contacting the auction house. Also visiting the individual auction houses such as Christie's, Sotheby's, and Bonhams online, one can usually access at least a decade’s worth of auction results. Many list a painting’s full provenance up until the date of the sale.
Strategy 5 -- Find an image of the artwork in a printed book. Usually the book's text or description of the image plate will include the artwork’s copyright holder at the time of the printing. To find such printed works consult Havlice’s World Painting Index or a catalogue raisonne of the artist.
Finally, internet searches and use of the library’s online subscription databases (such as JSTOR and Wilson Art Full Text) should also be consulted.
Earlier blog entry:
Benezit in English? C'est Vrai! - July 3, 2007.
A reproduction of "Banks of a River" by Jacob Ruysdael, in A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters by John Smith. Owned by National Galleries Scotland.
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