16 June 2014

Provenance research—now and later (Third Installment)

In the spirit of an on-going "think-aloud" pertaining to the nature of provenance research and the art restitution movement, here are some additional thoughts for discussion.

There are no official statistics regarding:

a/ the total number of art objects claimed, b/ the total number of art objects restituted, c/ the total value of art objects sold after restitution, and d/ the total value of so-called “art restitution litigation.”

a/ the total number of art objects claimed:

By May 1945, somewhere between 15 and 20 million art objects of all sorts, from masterpieces to portraits of your favorite saints and relatives, had been misplaced due to civil unrest, persecution, war, genocide, and theft.

Of those misplaced cultural objects, a small number fit the moniker of “culturally-significant” or “national treasure” or both, depending on who was defining those two very odd expressions. For the sake of the argument, let’s just say 1 to 5 per cent of the misplaced objects fit those categories, or 100,000 (lowest number) to 1 million (highest number). The rest fell into the general bucket of culturally not so significant or insignificant, again, depending on who is expounding on this odd categorization.

Postwar Allied restitution policy ended up focusing on the 1 to 5 percent of objects lost or missing due to State-sponsored mischief between 1933 and 1945. For the rest, compensation schemes were foisted onto shell-shocked survivors and their kin due to an institutional absence of interest amongst postwar governments to aid those victims in locating and recovering their missing cultural property for reasons mentioned above. Many of the culturally significant objects and those earning the label of “national treasure” came from State collections plundered by the Axis and from private collections owned by wealthy individuals with close ties to State museums in countries dominated by the Axis. Those items received favored treatment in the eyes of the Allies and their representatives, referred to as “Monuments Men”.

The Allied powers’ prime directive was the economic, political, social and cultural rehabilitation of Europe (read that part of Europe not occupied or influenced by the Soviet Army and its government) especially as the incipient Cold War became a full-fledged game of geopolitical antipathy between former wartime allies.

As a consequence of the aforementioned factors and those tied to the inevitable human condition—people over property—most survivors did not file claims in the immediate postwar period and only did so after deadlines had passed and the only chance of physically recovering most if not all of their lost property was close to 0.

By 1956, the US State Department had estimated that approximately several hundred thousand cultural objects of all kinds and shapes and value were still being claimed through its good offices by individuals from more than 30 nations.

From the mid-1990s to today, in the absence of any concerted international effort to tally the total number of claimed objects registered as such with national governments, we can only guess that, perhaps, the aggregate total figure of claimed cultural objects is in excess of the number declared by the State Department in 1956.

Moreover, there is no available as to the number of claims filed against museums and other institutions that hold or trade in art objects.  The number of objects claimed might well be in the thousands but proof being in the pudding no one can be sure of anything at this point in time.

Recommendation: nations that are signatory to international compacts known as the Washington conference of 1998 and the Terezin Declaration of June 2009 should conduct a census of all outstanding claimed cultural objects registered as of now in their care and publish those results for public consumption and analysis.  The same appeal can be made to the members of the art market and ask that it provide figures representing the number of objects in their custody which are subject to claims without giving out names out of a concern for data privacy.

b/ the total number of art objects that have been restituted since the Washington Conference:

Historically, the most accessible statistics are repatriation figures from various postwar governments and official statistics regarding actual physical restitutions up to the early 1950s. Since then, there is very little public information that can be found about how many art objects were returned to rightful owners between the mid-1950s and the beginning of the 21st century.

Those nations that have established restitution committees (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Austria) have compiled figures regarding the number of objects that have been claimed through their auspices. But no statistics are tallied pertaining to the number of objects returned through direct negotiations with museums, auction houses, institutions, corporations, and private individuals.

c/ the total value of restituted art objects is directly dependent on the answer to the aforementioned.

The recipients of restituted art objects are usually driven to sell them because they cannot afford to keep them in their possession as a result of their inflated value and the ensuing insurance and other expenses that accompany their maintenance as one's newly found property. Other successful claimants part with the restituted objects because there are a multitude of individuals who have a rightful claim to a share of the value of the restituted object(s). There can be as many 50 or 60 individuals who can benefit from the monetization of restituted objects, thus significanly diluting the actual amount earned from the sale of the restituted object(s).  And then, there are those folks out there who have recovered their objects and prefer to sell them for their own personal reasons which are theirs only to be treated as a private matter, free of outside commentary.

The only indication of value comes from press reports about items being auctioned after restitution. It can safely be assumed that the objects with an Austrian provenance—mostly oil paintings by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele—have fetched the highest prices at auction following their restitution, mostly due to the infatuation by the upper tiers of the global art market for such works, regardless of their inherent and implicit esthetic value. Those works alone have fetched in toto more than half a billion dollars. It might be safe to conservatively estimate the total value of restituted objects at slightly more than a billion dollars since the late 1990s. But that figure needs to be carefully verified through an elaborate survey of the field of art restitution.

d/ the total value of so-called “art restitution litigation”:

Although this question is unfair and unjust, it still needs to be answered out of a desire for transparency.  We can only surmise how costly litigation efforts can be once we fuse the fees earned from those seeking restitution and those working to prevent restitution. Usually, museums and art dealers will recruit fairly well-heeled law firms as outside counsel in order to safeguard the integrity of their collections and rebuff attempts by claimants to assert title. On the plaintiffs’ side, there is an odd mix of solo practitioners and small and large firms involved in art restitution. All told, there are not more than 100 or so attorneys—yes, you read it!—who work on art restitution cases as an integral part of their legal practice if we combine North America, Europe and Israel. Since most plaintiffs cases are adopted on a contingency fee basis, usually 30 per cent, you should take the estimated value of restituted objects and divide that figure by three in order to get an idea of the estimated value of the litigation for plaintiffs’ lawyers since the late 1990s. Likewise, for those lawyers defending their clients against outside claims, the fees can easily rise into the millions of dollars for each claimed object. Most of the claimed objects that are subject to intense years-long litigation hold values in excess of 1 million dollars.

Where does all of this leave the bewildered field of provenance research?

The two main incentives underlying provenance research since the late 1990s are to 1/ safeguard art objects which are part of a private or public collection or held by an individual collector or 2/ obtain the restitution of such an art object.

What does this mean in terms of the objective and empirical integrity of the research being conducted on the history of an object? How do these legal undertakings affect the very nature of provenance research as distinct from its initial intent as an art-historical practice?

What is the future of provenance research and can it be salvaged as an objective, scientific field of inquiry?