At this point, there are two camps, one of which refuses to compromise, while the other has always been open to dialogue and exchanges of information.
The uncompromising camp upholds the sanctity of museum collections and subscribes to the theory according to which an object’s history is less important than the object itself. Ultimately, the fate of an object is incidental whereas the possession, display and study of an object is primary. The latter believe that people and objects are intertwined and that the fate of an object is as important as the object itself. In other words, the story behind and the history of an object are no less significant than the physicality and essence of the object under examination. The uncompromising group has deliberately politicized the discussion over provenance to the point that it is impossible to discuss provenance without a lawyer in the room. What this group does not wish to admit under pain of abject torture is that a provenance is per se a legal document as much as it is a historical document. Hence, any discussion of provenance must include a discussion of law.
Plain and simple.
The object would not exist if there had not been a person creating it. The object itself becomes the subject of a commercial transaction, an exchange, a transfer, a gift. In short, the ownership of the object will shift at some point from its creator to someone else. The essence of an object does not change over time. It is timeless. But that is not the issue at hand here.
The ownership of an object can be either licit or illicit, it cannot be both or neither. That should be as plain and clear as day. When an object which has been illicitly obtained enters a public or private collection as an acquisition or a gift, title to this object will be transferred from the previous owner—licit or illicit—to the receiving institution or individual. If the previous owner entered into possession illegally, he has no legal right by which he can transfer good title or legitimate ownership to the next owner. However, if the receiving party—the new owner—is fully aware of the dubious nature of the object that he is acquiring or accepting as a gift, he becomes party to the theft. That should be also clear, no?
The provenance becomes the public face of these transactions—licit or not. For that reason and for that reason alone, it becomes a source of evidence as to who owned, possessed, or held the object when and where. Now, do you understand why there are no provenances that appear when you click on an object displayed on someone’s website? Or even better, if there is a provenance, it is so elliptical that it is in fact a work of fiction.
Hence, the school of thought that politicizes the discussion over provenance and provenance research is the same school that does not really subscribe to the rule by which the full provenance of an object should be disclosed as a means of educating the public—hence, putting one’s tax dollars to full use—as a means of educating the buyers and borrowers of these objects so that they can rest assured that they are buying or borrowing an object that is licit.
Any attempt to hide, modify, or otherwise obscure the ownership trail of an object, is somewhat akin to the commission of a crime. But, unfortunately, most nations do not criminalize such activity.
When an object is presented for acquisition or as a gift, the potential buyer or recipient of the gift should make sure that the provenance of that object does not hide any unsavory past which would threaten his good title to the object under discussion. That requires a certain amount of due diligence.
The answer to that question varies from place to place and can be truly disarming. From checking a single database to making several phone calls (much like calling references submitted by an applicant), people exercise their “due diligence” in odd ways, because, ultimately, those folks want the object that is presented to them. Nevertheless, a reasoned approach might compel the potential buyer or recipient of the gift to demur and reject the object because the provenance simply is too skimpy for words or there are too many unanswered questions that, in due course, would come back to haunt the new owner of this object. More often than not, those who apply such circumspection and reasoned judgment when faced with the prospect of owning a beautiful and rapturous object are few and far between. Invariably, the vast majority relegate the flawed provenance to the imperfections of time and history and express their utter delight at the prospect of embellishing their collection with such a fine new acquisition.
The big question is:
How much diligence is due and acceptable?