18 March 2015

An opinion piece: An epitaph for provenance research training?

by Marc Masurovsky

According to the most recent TEFAF Art Market survey, the global art market has exceeded 51 billion euros in value for 2014. Half of that value, about 25 billion euros’ worth, pertains to art objects that were produced before 1945, the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. What percentage of the 25 billion carry an incomplete provenance? What are they? Where are they? Non lo so.  We don't know and neither do you.

Incomplete provenance simply means that the buyer cannot retrace most of the history of the object that he/she is purchasing. In other words, there is always a chance that the object changed hands illegally at some point during its peregrinations through space and time. The buyer will never know whether he/she is the rightful owner of the object until someone discovers it and places a claim.

The purpose of provenance research is to shed light on those dark corners of history. Those who acquire, display, or otherwise draw some benefit from the object’s presence in their collections need to be sure that there is no taint on their title to the object and that they will not be exposed to some third-party claim after coming into possession of the object.

Does this make sense so far?

The legacy of the Holocaust has shed light on the fact that many holes have not been filled, many gaps have not been closed regarding the fate of property owned by persons of Jewish descent who had lost their objects to unlawful acts of persecution and extermination. The Washington Conference of December 1, 1998, had been a meek attempt to reexamine how Jewish-owned property had been allowed to circulate freely in open markets throughout the world, most of which should have been returned to their rightful owners. And yet…The Washington Principles, non-binding recommendations, were designed to guide the current possessors of such objects to "do the right thing" and follow an ad minima ethical and moral course of action.

The concept of provenance was given a new sheen as of the late 1990s as well as a darker meaning. Once the exclusive province of art historians, provenance has been expanded to include History, writ large. Its demand on the researcher has been to shed all possible light on how an object has traveled and to give equal weight to the fate of past owners and to some of the most heinous moments of modern history.

A tall order for most members of the art world who prefer to operate in a state of self-imposed oblivious indifference to such tedium as History. The only history that seems to matter is the association of an object with some glamorous figure, so as to enhance its marketability. Provenance can be monetized. It has always been monetized.

The initial clamor for provenance research did not come from museums but from advocates for Holocaust survivors, cultural heritage circles, lawyers working on difficult art cases, Jewish groups familiar with property claims, and a roomful of government officials.

Fast forward…

Nowadays, there is a general recognition that a certain amount of “training” should be required to sensitize provenance research practitioners to the complexities of that “added dimension” of research that goes far beyond the strictures of conventional art history. From 2012 to 2014, five training workshops, aided by the New York-based Claims Conference, were offered under the aegis of the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), an international NGO established in Prague in June 2009 as the sad stepchild of a failed international conference on the fate and disposition of Jewish assets.

ESLI has stopped offering these workshops. No one has picked up the ball except for the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP). A proposed workshop on provenance research to be held in New York City in the second half of April has not garnered much support and this, in the heart of the global art market.

How can one interpret such obvious disinterest in provenance training?

Several possibilities:

1/ people complain about the lack of training but, when the opportunity arises to benefit from such training, they balk and stay home.

2/ art world specialists (museums, museum studies programs, auction houses) should offer provenance research training not NGOs like HARP. To date, that has not happened.

3/ the art world has survived thus far without provenance research training and will continue to do so until the ends of time. Hence, who cares?

4/ restitution and repatriation claims are considered to be part of “the cost of doing business” which is why the art world does not promote training in provenance research. Museums, art dealers, galleries, collectors, fold in the possibility of litigation as a reasonable yet annoying aspect of their trade. So, ignorance has a price, but one that they are willing to pay, for not asking questions about art objects in their possession. Hence, one could argue that the global art world plays fast and loose with the law and hopes to get away with it, one way or another. On occasion, the gambit does not work out as some antiquities dealers and art galleries have discovered in past years.

Should all of the aforementioned possibilities be close to the mark and bear some semblance of accuracy, provenance research, unless supported by governments (like in Germany), is doomed as an independent profession. To date, the art world has done nothing to promote and foster a healthy environment for such training.  The same applies to universities and colleges, except for a handful (literally!).

One can only deduce that training in how to conduct research in the history of ownership of art objects is merely an option, perhaps even a hobby, well-remunerated for a very few, which makes us wonder who can rightfully call themselves a provenance researcher unless, by trial and error, that individual has proven his/her worth. Proving one's worth is in the eye of the beholder since there exist no objective standards by which to assess the quality of one's research.  For those of you who might be offended by this remark, you should understand its deeper meaning since one cannot declare a skill a profession until there is established a universal code of behavior and "professional" standards to be followed by its practitioners.

So, for now, provenance research training is a dead letter until someone administers CPR and revives it from its medically-induced coma.