For now, it is best to throw out some questions for which answers are not necessarily forthcoming.
Why all the fuss about provenance research?
Up until the mid-to late 1990s, provenance research remained within the province of trained art historians working in cultural institutions where art objects are cared for and displayed for the benefit of the public. The research aims to enhance the understanding of the object—its author, its physical attributes, the period in which it was produced, the reasons for its existence, and how it evolved over time and space.
This kind of research is an academic/intellectual exercise that helps ascertain the authenticity of an object and its place in the history of art, writ large.
It is not a requirement incumbent upon its practitioner. Provenance research is one of many duties that “come with the job.” If it does not get done, no one gets fired. More often than not, the information that is collected about the object does not enter the “public record” insofar as it is communicated to the general public. If it is communicated, that is left up to the discretion of the institution where the research is conducted.
Then, the 1990s came and went, and, all of a sudden, “provenance research” became something else entirely.
If I had been working in a museum in the wake of the scandal surrounding the misuse of Swiss bank accounts owned by persons of Jewish descent who may or may not have perished during the Holocaust, I would have been rather oblivious to any debate about loot in general. Once the debate about the mishandling of “Jewish bank accounts” (I hate that expression!) transferred into the (mis)handling of art objects nestled in the permanent collections of countless museums both in North America and Europe, provenance research entered the spotlight front and center.
If I had been working in a museum at the time that the “Portrait of Wally” by Egon Schiele was seized at the Museum of Modern Art of New York in early January 1998, I probably would have wondered: what is that all about? And I would have naturally sided with the then owners of the painting, the Leopold Foundation of Vienna, and the exhibitors, the Museum of Modern Art, wondering what Robert Morgenthau, then district attorney of Manhattan, had had for coffee on the day that he decided to order the New York Police Department to seize the painting.
I would have done so because my training would have precluded me from even wondering if I should even worry about whether or not the institution that I served had actual title to the objects under my care and examination. Why should I have worried about title since I simply assumed that my institution was the rightful owner?
I write these words simply because it is the right thing to do: acknowledge that the beast that has become “provenance research” has been transformed from an innocuous art-historical practice into a tendentious, litigation-laced, means to an end: does the research into the origins of an object lead to the maintenance of that object in the collection that I help steward or does it lead to the de-accessioning of the object because of some historical wrong that broke the chain of ownership of the object, thus changing its status to “restitutable”?