Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Provenance is a key element in assessing significance. It is considered, along with the history of an item or collection, in the step-by-step assessment process. Provenance is also a comparative criterion, as it can add important dimensions to significance. A provenanced item is likely to be more significant than an equivalent unprovenanced item. This section explores the key role of provenance in different domains and with a variety of items and collections.
Signet ring that once belonged to Governor William Bligh, Miers Jeweller London, with documents that provide its provenance
Photo: Andrew Frolows
Reproduced courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
Provenance is the life story of an item or collection and a record of its ultimate derivation and its passage through the hands of its various owners.
Provenance may be recorded on the item itself. This may take the form of an inscription on the back of a work of art or a historical item, or an owner's bookplate, or it may be in the form of associated documentation and research. Provenance depends on good record keeping by families, private collectors, dealers and collecting organisations. Well-provenanced items are the building blocks of artefact histories and connoisseurship, and are used as a reference point for analysing similar undocumented items.
The definition and use of provenance as a tool for analysis and assessment varies among different collecting domains and disciplines.
Provenance in archives pertains to the organisation or individual that created, accumulated, maintained or used documents in the conduct of personal or corporate activity.
'Respect for provenance means keeping the integrity of the records of a person or an organisation by not mingling records from one person or organisation with those from another.'
The provenance of archaeological artefacts is the documented context of excavation, ideally the precise location of the item within an archaeological site and in relationship to other excavated items. This information greatly enlarges the research potential and significance of the item and the site as a whole, enabling comparison with other items and sites. This is why looting sites—taking items from their context—is so damaging: 'individual items lose their cultural and historical value if assessed outside the matrix from which they emerged'. International conventions guard against the removal and sale of illicitly obtained items such as antiquities.
Following are illustrated examples of 'provenance in action' across some collection types.