When looking to buy a photograph, there are a few things to consider and be comfortable with. In photographs, like most other arts, perhaps the term Provenance is the most important of all.
Provenance is the collective term for the chronology of ownership from creation to the present day of a work of art. In other words: Who made it, where has it been since it was made and, who has owned it along the way.
The ultimate provenance is a photograph obtained by you, directly from the artist. This is asserted by a receipt made out to you that says you own the photograph. The receipt must be signed, made out to you, dated and it should include a very specific description of what you have acquired. This might include a description or title, the image size, paper size, the print number, if it is part of an edition, and any other pertinent information. It should be a proper receipt, consistent with other receipts from the artist – preferably not written on a scrap of paper, or the corner of a napkin. The receipt together with the photograph itself is the ultimate provenance, confirming that the photograph came to you directly from the photographer.
If you know the photographer, or perhaps have enough presence of mind to ask while in the glow of the halo of the master, you can ask for the photograph to be dedicated to you. The dedication might read: “For Mary Smith, best wishes, Lee Friedlander, June 5, 2010.”
You should know that some collectors find a personal dedication a negative factor when buying a photograph. Some people don’t like showing off their photograph collection with dedications to people other than themselves, while others find any writing on a photograph, aside from a stamp and signature of the artist, to be undesirable. This is of course very subjective, but just be aware that some collectors will take issue with a dedication.
On a personal note; I have a photograph by one of my heroes, Marc Riboud. It hangs above me as I write this. It reads: “For Harbel, new best friends forever, Marc Riboud”. I asked that he write below the image, right across the front. I have framed it so that you can read the inscription. Of my entire collection, it is the only photograph that I have framed where the mat does not cover the signature. Usually, I find a signature distracting, but in the case of Riboud, I smile every time I look at it and read the inscription. However, I do acknowledge that it has probably deducted a few bucks from the value of the photograph. Not everyone likes a photograph dedicated to someone else. But I digress…..
Failing this direct provenance, we now move into progressively more gray areas. The best in a retail environment is a receipt from the dealer, or gallery representing the artist. A receipt from the dealer accompanying the photograph is usually good provenance, particularly if it is a respected dealer in the photography community.
If you are buying from a fellow collector, and that person can present a credible receipt together with the photograph, that is pretty good provenance.
But as the string grows longer – more owners, more galleries between you and the artist – the facts become harder to check. Auction houses, even the best ones, will have a long list of words that they use to cover themselves, like: “believed to be…”, “from the period…”, “property of a relative…”, “school of….”, etc. The bottom line here is that the more credible you think the paper-trail is, the better.
All rules have exceptions. Sometimes the provenance is less important. This sometimes happens when the previous owner was famous or had particular significance to the world of photography or art in general. This can change everything. An example would be a photograph that was owned by, let’s say Picasso.
Likewise, sometimes a photograph comes from the estate of a famous person, logic and even common sense, often goes out the window in this case. In the auction of Andre Breton’s estate, photographs sold for 10 times their high estimate, because they had belonged to Andre Breton, which begs the question whether it is still about the photograph at all, or about owning a little piece of Andre Breton.
Your tolerance for risk determines how you might feel about a photograph that you wish to acquire. But, always remember, if you love the photograph and know what you are buying, or at least are aware of any downside, should you wish to resell it at a later date, then by all means, go for it and enjoy! Sometimes passion is all that really counts.