03 April 2016

Provenance research on display--Part Two

by Marc Masurovsky

How is “provenance research” defined?

Some institutions stress the linguistic roots of the word “provenance.”

The Getty Museum teaches us that the word provenance comes from a French word provenir, which means "to come from." Provenance, thus, is the history of ownership of a valued object, such as a work of art.

The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) also indicates that provenance "derives from the French provenir meaning “to originate”. Although the term is sometimes used synonymously with “provenience,” the latter is an archaeological term referring to an artifact’s excavation site or findspot." IFAR is part of a small group of institutions that differentiates between art objects and artifacts.

One museum—The Ackland Museum at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill—actually used the Grove Art Dictionary to define provenance as “the record of ownership of movable works of art.”

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art inLaurel, MS, defines the provenance of an art object as ownership history—“ the wheres, whos, and whens of its past.” Like many small museums, the likelihood of an art object in its collection with a dubious past requiring special treatment is remote. This museum has found eleven objects which require additional research including a painting by Eugene Boudin. Although marginally concerned with questions of Nazi looted art, the Lauren Rogers shows us how a cultural institution can take extraordinary, one might say even disproportionate steps, to ensure that the full ownership history of these eleven objects gets properly documented.

Provenance as a legal problem

Some museums do not beat around the bush: provenance is about legal title to the object in their collections. At the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, FL, “the goal of provenance research is to verify that museums have legal title to and legitimate possession of works in their collections.” The few objects on its website display no provenance information. Hence, the message is clear. Provenance is associated with legal issues and there is no reason why the information should be made public.

At the Lowe Art Museum of Miami University, concern is expressed for the potential presence of looted objects in a museum collection, however, the language is so flat and vague that we are left wondering whether provenance is even a consideration. The same issue arises at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in southern Florida. There too, one is left with the impression that provenance was not really a concern prior to the 1990s but that might be due to the unique nature of the Vizcaya's collection, which derives from a handful of wealthy donors. 

The University of Arizona goes so far as to say that provenance research “can also help verify a piece as legitimate or ensure that it has been acquired by honest means.”  However, it is difficult to take the university seriously when the objects on display have no provenance information.

The same problem appears on the website of Cornell University’s Johnson Museum. Although there is an explicit acknowledgment that “resolving issues surrounding gaps in provenance has become a key focus for cultural institutions", the museum’s online display of art objects provides no provenance information whatsoever which would allow us to understand whether Cornell is engaged in “resolving issues surrounding gaps in provenance.”

Full provenance

The Getty Museum discusses a “full provenance” as being “a documented history that can help prove ownership, assign the work to a known artist, and establish the work of art's authenticity.” .

The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) describes the provenance as “a historical record of its ownership, although a work’s provenance comprehends far more than its pedigree. The provenance is also an account of changing artistic tastes and collecting priorities, a record of social and political alliances, and an indicator of economic and market conditions influencing the sale or transfer of the work of art."

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we find out that “the provenance of an individual work of art sheds light on its historical, social, and economic context, as well as its critical fortunes through time. Knowledge about individual collectors and their collections can provide insights into the history of taste and the habits of collectors, dealers, and the relationships between them,” perhaps one of the rare museums to contextualize and texture the deeper meaning of the provenance and equating it to a piece of living social, cultural, political, and economic history.

For the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, provenance research can shed light on the collecting habits of individuals.

Ideal provenance

At Oberlin College, an ideal provenance would provide the ownership history of a work “– be it a painting, sculpture, drawing, or work in another media –from the time the work was created until the moment when the museum acquired it.” But that is not going to happen for the following reason:

“The most likely cause for this is incomplete record-keeping by prior owners, and the concomitant loss of knowledge of a work’s prior history when it changed hands. Just as many people today may not know when or from where their parents or grandparents acquired a piece of family furniture or a painting or print, so too over the centuries did such information become lost to past collectors.”

If all museum websites followed Oberlin’s lead, we would all be well-advised that a complete provenance, especially for objects created before the 20th century, is nigh impossible to produce.

For IFAR, “an ideal provenance history would provide a documentary record of owners’ names; dates of ownership, and means of transference, ie. inheritance, or sale through a dealer or auction; and locations where the work was kept, from the time of its creation by the artist until the present day.”

The Yale University Library tells us how “an ideal provenance history would provide a documentary record of owners’ names; dates of ownership, and means of transference, or sale through a dealer or auction; and locations where the work was kept, from the time of its creation until the present day.”

The Duke University Library defines "provenance" as “the history of where an art object has been since its creation. Provenance research is important to A) establish a work's authenticity, B) to establish the legitimate owner of a work of art, and C) understand the history of the object for purposes of display, conservation and cultural importance.”

At the Hood Museum of Dartmouth University, we learn that provenance “literally means origin.” The research associated with establishing the provenance of an object involves “tracing the history of ownership from its present location back to its creation by the artist.” Like at Duke University, the research helps “establish authenticity, historical importance, and legitimacy of ownership.” However we are cautioned that provenance information “is rarely complete (especially in the case of objects of significant age), and it is often impossible to establish an unbroken history for an object, in spite of a researcher’s dedication to the task.”

Complete provenance

The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us that the “complete provenance of a given work of art is often difficult if not impossible to establish.” It raises the issue of challenges that many museums belabor, rather than define what a provenance is, a somewhat defensive posture, at least that’s how I see it.

“Records of sale, particularly for paintings or objects that have not changed hands for several generations, frequently do not survive. Moreover, many private collectors buy and sell works anonymously through third parties, such as dealers or auction houses, which may or may not disclose the owner's identity. Many nineteenth- and twentieth-century dealers and auction houses are no longer in business. In those cases, records are at best incompletely preserved, if not lost or destroyed. All these factors contribute to the gaps that commonly occur in a work of art's provenance. Such gaps do not signal that the work was looted or stolen, only that the complete ownership history cannot be reconstructed today.”

Provenance and its imperfections

The Hood Museum at Dartmouth University gets brownie points for its open admission that inaccuracies can flaw provenance research and result in erroneous or distorted views of an art object’s history.  Similarly, the Worcester Art Museum is quick to point out that an incomplete provenance is not an indication of foul play. 

Some institutions pass on defining what a provenance is and what research into a provenance entails. They simply indicate that provenance is part of the museum’s daily activities and they move on to address the question of “challenges” which will be addressed in another section. 

At the Yale University Art Gallery, there is no overt mention of provenance research. One has to go digging into its collection policy to get an idea of how the Gallery “handles” art objects with a dubious past. 
At Princeton University, “research on provenance, or the history of ownership of a work of art, is a traditional part of museum practice” and “is a regular part of the research on any object that enters the collection.” The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, displays similar brevity and places provenance research in the context of WWII. “From its inception, the National Gallery of Art has conducted extensive research into the provenance, or history of ownership, of objects in its collection, with particular attention over the past several years to the World War II era.” 

The Smithsonian in Washington, DC, states that “researching the provenance of collections is a fundamental aspect of curatorial work, but this research is labor intensive.”  The Philadelphia Museum of Art follows the same dictum, which is to discuss provenance research as a routine in the museum’s daily life but it emphasizes its “particular effort to investigate the World War II-era provenance of the European paintings, sculptures and decorative arts in the collection.” As a side note, does provenance research extend to works on paper?

The Art Institute of Chicago stresses the fact that “since 1997, and in keeping with guidelines issued beginning in 1998 by the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the Art Institute has intensified its efforts to determine the provenance for the period 1933-1945 for paintings and sculpture in its collection.” One of a small cohort of cultural institutions which provides a historical context to the emergence of extensive provenance research as a concern in American cultural institutions with emphasis on the 1933-1945 period.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN, raised a similar historical point by marking the beginning of intensive provenance research in American museums as of spring 2000:
“In April 2000, museum directors from across the country joined together to present testimony before the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets to discuss their desire to make information on provenance (history of ownership) research on their collections more widely accessible. As a result, the Walker Art Center has now made this research available to the general public through this website in accordance with the American Association of Museums (AAM)’s April 2001 “Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era.”

This “desire to make information on provenance… more widely accessible” arose in the wake of the Swiss banking scandal of the mid-1990s, the seizure of Schiele paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in early 1998, the framing of principles at the Washington Conference of December 1998 to guide museums on how to “handle Nazi looted art.” The Washington Conference of December 1998 fired the first official shot across the bow of the international museum community as a soft warning meant to correct longstanding practices of relativizing the history of objects in their collections, without due consideration given to events like world wars and genocide as key disruptors of the chain of custody of their objects. The Washington Conference prompted the AAM and AAMD to gear up and they issued their own guidelines on provenance for their members. “The desire to make” provenance information more “accessible” sounds more like an ex post facto rationalization and a revisionist approach to the historical reality which is that, without the Washington Conference, there never would have been such an emphasis on provenance research.

The Wadsworth Art Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, sets 2002 and 2003 as the inception of its provenance research efforts affecting 257 objects. No information is actually published on the Wadsworth's website regarding those objects which presumably carry with them issues of ownership. Perhaps the mission of this museum is to keep private the results of its research, which would be in clear violation of the intent underlying the Washington Principles of December 1998. This lack of transparency continues to affect many institutions both in the US and abroad.

Let’s be positive. 

This brief overview of how provenance research is defined in a random sampling of American cultural institutions leads me to conclude that provenance research is viewed differently, practiced differently, and as with the Walker Art Center, one wonders whether, had there been no Swiss banking scandal, no seizures of paintings in an American museum, no Washington Conference, there would have been no Washington Principles and therefore, no websites to indicate how seriously these institutions treat provenance research. All of this is water under the bridge and today's reality is strikingly different from that of the 1990s regarding individual and institutional awareness of the ethical, moral, cultural, legal consequences of provenance research.

Let's be clear. Provenance research is being taken seriously in an ever-growing number of cultural institutions, public and private, much more so than two decades ago. Their websites embody the public expression of those concerns, although there is an obvious awkwardness about how to explain why there is such a "sudden" emphasis on what was supposed to be part of a museum's daily practice. These presentations of provenance research efforts will hopefully lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive framework to a highly specialized discipline practiced in a vast, inter-disciplinary context that has grown beyond the exclusive provinces of art history and museum science.  Much still needs to be done to overcome the barriers between practitioners coming from very different specialty areas. Work in progress.

The next articles will focus on cultural institutions outside the United States, for-profit companies that tout provenance research as part of their portfolio, the “challenges” that cultural institutions profess are inherent to provenance work and how cultural institutions address the methodology underlying research into the provenance of different categories of objects including antiquities and indigenous artifacts.