From The Getty Iris:
Like the stories depicted in them, works of art have stories of their own. These stories—of how an art object travels, is bought and sold, and physically changes over time—are called its provenance.
Provenance is also important to a more casual researcher, or to an art historian or curator whose main job might be something else entirely. For example, museum curators are especially interested in provenance for both legal and historical reasons. Provenance enables a curator to establish a complete story from the day the object left the artist’s hands until it reached its current collection. Because of gaps in the historical record, a “complete” story can rarely be established for objects older than a hundred years old, but closing those gaps remains the goal.
Provenance research has traditionally been slow, painstaking, and even expensive. While some resources have been digitized—such as the records available in the Getty Provenance Index databases—much may only be available in far-flung physical archives. Moreover, provenance research requires specific skills and training that has not always been easy to come by. With greater attention to digitization and collaboration, however, the tools of provenance research are now rapidly evolving.