18 April 2015

Current state of affairs in the United States (not pretty) as of April 18, 2015

by Marc Masurovsky

Legislative battles (past and on-going):

The organized American museum community failed in its second attempt in as many years to get the Congress to pass a sweeping bill that would have granted automatic immunity from seizure to any art object brought into the United States for display. As usual, it had passed the House of Representatives with little or no discussion. But, fortunately, the proposed bill got lost in the Senate since no Senator wanted to sponsor it.

Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, is pressing for passage of bipartisan legislation that would establish a cultural property Czar in the United States government, responsible for coordinating all issues related to cultural property as they affect US relations with foreign nations especially in conflict zones where such property is threatened by war and terrorist acts (Syria, Iraq, etc…). The bill has bipartisan support and would edge the US closer to having some sort of cultural policy albeit one tied to counterterrorism and national security.

Does this mean that the physical destruction of cultural treasures by armed insurgents referred to as terrorists motivates the US government to take action in defense of culture?

Future legislative battles:

Can we envision a future where claimants should not worry about current possessors hiding behind statutes of limitations and being blamed for not having searched for their objects 24/7 (theory known as “laches”)?

Is it possible to even think that the provenance—history of ownership of an object—could become a requirement, read legal requirement, prior to any transaction?

Training in provenance research:

Currently, there are no plans to institutionalize provenance research in any academic program either at the college or university level or in art institutes or in the education sections of auction houses. As some art historians cynically and wrongfully point out, provenance research is implicit “in what we do.”

Provenance research remains marginalized as a luxury, an option, and a hobby. Choose the one you prefer. Where does that put those who earn their income as provenance researchers? Are they professionals? If so, how can one be a professional in a profession that does not have its own code of behavior, well-defined ethical and professional standards, well-defined methodologies recognized by “the field"?

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) make no visible efforts to encourage their members to recruit full-time researchers whose jobs would be to keep them honest and one step ahead of a legal claim.

The losers: 
-a disproportionate number of qualified and intelligent candidates who could serve as researchers; 

-museums which are not willing to expend tens of thousands of dollars to fulfill their due diligence requirements by knowing where their objects come from and whether they are trouble free.

Mid-to long-term effect: growing disillusionment and disenchantment among hundreds of researchers, young and not so young, who have staked their future careers on serving cultural institutions as researchers.

Long-term effect: a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lack of interest in becoming a professional researcher.

Is that really what museums want?

Let’s go back to the field for a minute.

Provenance research rose to relative prominence as a result of litigation in the late 1990s involving looted objects in private and public collections.  At least we would like to think that there are at least four methodologies or approaches which have evolved :

a/ one used by researchers working for the defense-the current possessors—and

b/ the methodology used by the plaintiff—the claimant seeking restitution.

c/ And then there is the methodology that an unknown number of art historians view as “implicit” to the way they exercise their profession.

d/ There is a smaller group of researchers who approach provenance not as provenance but as a historical cum forensic cum analytical cum contextual cum critical exercise, which taps into disciplines such as economics, political science, history, art history (yes!), forensics, and makes extensive use of deductive reasoning.
Apparently, there are at least four ways of slicing the methodological provenance research cake, some of them being produced by artificial environments brought about by the vested interests of the current possessors, an unhealthy way of treating any intellectual discipline. Politics should never be allowed to subvert research.

Proposal for the future

Find alternative ways to dispense with training in the methodologies needed to understand the history of  ownership of objects. 

How would that work?

One way is to produce documents (like manuals but less formal) explaining the methodologies involved in undertaking this kind of research and making them available to whomever would want to consider them for their own advancement.

Another way is to organize small-size workshops in different cities and towns at very little cost or free of charge (if subsidized) to those who desire them. Recent experience, though, has dampened our spirits in terms of actual demand. But let’s remain optimistic.
In order to accomplish the above, we need to strengthen ties among those who are genuinely interested in learning more about the history of objects displaced during times of war and other mass conflicts (including genocide), and especially in sharing know-how, resources and documents.