Twenty years ago, on December 3, 1998, at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, representatives of more than forty countries and a handful of international non-profit organizations agreed to issue eleven legally non-binding “principles”, more like strong recommendations, to guide cultural practitioners, civil servants, museum personnel and art market “players” in the handling of objects and issues related to the twelve years of Nazi rule during which millions of cultural objects were misappropriated and stolen from Jewish owners. More precisely, these principles were meant to encourage these varied “stakeholders” to address in a meaningful manner the identification of looted art in their collections or under their care, publicize as best as possible details surrounding the history of these objects tagged as looted, and encourage the rightful owners to come forward and reach a mutually satisfactory decision on the fate of these objects, a “just and fair solution.” Part of this process entailed using the rapidly spreading digital technologies swamping the Internet and put them to use in highlighting objects in public and private collections with questionable provenances or histories of ownership.
I thought it would be intriguing to pay a digital visit to the websites of cultural institutions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and assess their forthrightness in addressing the delicate issue of Nazi looted art. The institutions which interest us are those that house objects produced before 1945, realistically before 1940, and which were acquired before or during the Nazi years. In other words, the cultural objects will primarily consist of creations by artists in Europe, any cultural object acquired prior to 1945, which could fit any category, be it indigenous, crafts from faraway lands, decorative objects, ornaments, the sky is the limit. In other words, everything and anything of sufficient aesthetic and cultural value to be incorporated into the collection of a private or public institution.
This exploration focuses on how “provenance research” is presented to the public.
Anyone involved in the transactional aspect of the art world—buying, selling, exhibiting, appraising, donating, collecting—should not only focus on the intrinsic features and esthetic characteristics of an object but also on its history, not a narrow or selective reading of its origins, but a holistic understanding of its “life” and “itinerary” from the moment of creation to its present circumstances with you. Any gap, however large or small, several years, decades, centuries, millennia, should be explained even succinctly but there should be some kind of commentary as to why the institution cannot provide information to cover certain portions of the history of the object.
With that in mind, museums and collections use their websites to promote their approach and understanding of what constitutes their mission and duty with regards to the objects that they steward. It is their public face, and, as such, the public shapes its image of the institution’s philosophy, ethos, and approach to the treatment of the objects that it accepts to hold and to display.
One large question to ponder about the drafting and publication of a provenance:
A provenance can be viewed as the summary of a story relating to how an object has traveled over time and space. In that sense, it is not very different from a historical narrative that tracks and contextualizes the evolution of people, objects, entities over a given span of time and across a network of private and public spaces. Like all historical narratives, information is “orchestrated”, “assembled”, “constructed” to produce “our” version of the story. Hence, we could argue that a provenance can be as subjective as the retelling of a “fait divers” from different vantage points. Pressing this point further, the authors and publishers of the history of an object “control” its narrative, its “truth”. Or is “truth” too strong of a word? There is no obligation on the part of a cultural institution, a gallery, an auction house “to tell the truth” about the history of an object. Moreover, no one knows really what “truth-telling” is when it comes to the writing of a provenance. We leave the ethical and moral implications of not “telling the truth” to the authors and publishers of the provenance information. She who controls the narrative takes hold of its “truth.” Much like the (re)writing of history, there can be a (re)writing and (re)telling of the history of an object.
In short, the stakes over the “truth” of an object’s history are as high as those involved in (re)telling the story of individuals, groups, institutions, and other objects which have been blessed with the interest and curiosity of a “story teller.”