02 June 2011

Training the current and next generations of provenance art research specialists

The most important aspect of any inquiry into looted works and objects of art lies in the quality of the research required to demonstrate the facts underlying the theft or misappropriation of the object and especially if it was returned to its rightful owner before entering into the hands of a current possessor. The work is laborious and necessitates, more often than not, creative use of documentation and resources found in a multiplicity of archives and collections in order to cobble together the often complex story of an object together before ascertaining what exactly happened to it.  An inevitable consequence of lack of expertise in these complex historical and forensic matters has been shoddy research in the context of art ownership disputes that have gone to trial over the past decade, especially as pertains to the resolution of disputes stemming from duress sales (or forced sales) in the period between 1933 and 1939.

Sadly, there is a near-absence of formal training programs in colleges, universities, art institutes, museums and other facilities which have a direct stake in the debate over looted and plundered art objects. Curiously, although many academic centers are associated with a museum which have undertaken provenance research into their collections, that activity has not produced any academic interest to teach the subject matter or to provide training to the student body.

Once the exclusive province of art historians, the dysfunctions inherent to past and present debates over provenance research stem largely from a lack of desire to do anything concretely measurable in the area of training, which is to say:
  • initiate programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels in degree-granting academic institutions;
  • expand the availability of internships both quantitatively and qualitatively to afford new talent a chance to do serious hands-on research and investigative work into museum collections. Incidentally, there has been notable progress made in museums where provenance research efforts have been under way. Although opportunities for provenance work through internship have increased, the corollary access to training has not necessarily followed suit, except perhaps in the most established museums. A background in art history is simply not enough for undertaking solid provenance research.
  • just as importantly, provide specialized training to museum and art market professionals aimed at sharpening their forensic toolkit when researching complex ownership histories.
Issues of provenance and questionable ownership of art objects have taken on greater significance in the past five years to the point where they require serious attention from policymakers, grant-making institutions, not just in North America but in Europe as well.

It is fittingly ironic, however, that the first undergraduate program to focus on issues of cultural plunder did not see the light of day in the United States, but rather, in Germany, at the Free University of Berlin.

Pleas for training have come from all quarters, including Switzerland, Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, Canada, and, to a lesser extent, the United States. In Canada, following a gathering of specialists in Ottawa in November 2001, the assembled participants recommended, among other things, to the Canadian authorities that there was a “need for significant support of staff training” which could only be financed by public monies. Since then, the same recommendations have been made in a report dated February 2008.

In 2004, a survey of American museums conducted by Edward Luby and Meagan Miller revealed the need for training amongst museum professionals to whom they sent questions. Especially affected were the mid-sized museums with very little resources to commit to staff training on provenance-related matters. Some proposed using advanced educational technology to provide training workshops when physical attendance is fiscally impossible to justify. Moreover, they lamented the fact that the Museum associations organized too few events focused specifically on provenance matters.

A recent Swiss governmental working group formed by the Federal Department of Home Affairs and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs completed a survey of 531 domestic cultural institutions and recommended, among other things, “training courses” in provenance research.

Recent pronouncements at the Holocaust Assets Conference in Prague in June 2009 brought the issue of training for improved provenance research back to the fore, albeit temporarily. Those recommendations were again echoed at the May 6-7, 2011, Washington, DC, World War II Provenance Research Seminar. As usual, proof is in the pudding. Who will be the first one to undertake such a program? Or, how much longer do students, researchers, investigators, specialists, museum professionals, cultural workers, need to wait before such programs come into being?