04 April 2016

Provenance research on display--Part Three

by Marc Masurovsky

This is the third installment in a series of articles on provenance research as presented to the general and specialized public through digital communications in the form of websites and other displays accessible through search engines on the Internet.

Before we shift to cultural institutions outside the United States and examine how they present “provenance research” to their public, it would be good to consider for a while the notion of “challenge" that many museums express on their websites when describing provenance research.

Here are some ways that challenges are expressed to us, the general public, so that we can appreciate the seriousness of the task at hand—provenance research—and appreciate how complicated, tedious, arduous, laborious, thankless, and, yes, perhaps, even impossible the task might be. I ran out of adjectives.

One obvious reason for such challenges is to blame the lack of relevant documentation to physical loss and fading memories and the fact that previous generations were not as litigious as ours and not as obsessed with private property ownership and did not commit every iota of information about objects sold, purchased, loaned, bequeathed, on paper. Yes, that lack of concern for maintaining complete audit trails, registers and other forms of documentation, has worked to our detriment, perhaps, but it was then, and now is now. Hence, the challenge.

Oh, and there is that terrible situation where you cannot trust everything you read. What if you are being deliberately misled, three, four generations later, by some conniving seller who will withhold the truth about an object. Don’t trust anything that you read. This argument can be used malevolently by all parties involved in determining the ownership of an object and/or its authenticity.

And, yes, there is that timeless practice whereby owners, sellers and lenders of art objects under scrutiny want to remain anonymous. This is where provenance writing gets to be creative and enters the fictional house through the front door. History as fiction has found its nest.


Princeton University wants us to know that, for most of the above-cited reasons and many more, no provenance can be complete and there will always be some gap, as narrow as a thread or as wide as the Nile River.

The Art Institute of Chicago reminds us that, just because there is a gap, it does not mean that something bad and illicit occurred. Even if it did, the problem of ownership might have gotten fixed and therefore the object in its collection is FINE. So, no need to worry. There is always another document to demonstrate licit ownership. Or is there? In other words, we are now in the middle of the contentious debate whereby provenance research enters a subjective arena, where research is unfortunately tailored to suit the legal needs and requisites of the institution holding the object at hand or the person claiming it which will do whatever is necessary to demonstrate that it cannot leave the building or that it is in fact THE object being claimed as lost.  Both sides to ownership disputes have been found to be lacking in this area and reluctant to acknowledge that the facts at hand might dispute their arguments. It is an unfortunate state of affairs, even for me, to have to make this clear but the intellectual process that accompanies the research must be inviolate and not subject to our desires and expectations. Humility is a virtue not necessarily found everywhere, especially when we are proven wrong.

Stanford University correctly points out that the complexity of the challenge facing those who “do” provenance research can be ascribed to the physical nature and attributes of the object at hand, through mislabeling, multiple titles and dimensions that are dissonant with one another over time and space. Actually, this is one of the most common problems faced by anyone researching the object at hand. The researcher must always keep in mind when reading documents from long ago: are these documents describing the object that I am interested in or is it one that resembles it but is not exactly the same one? Every artist has produced different versions of at least one piece which she created, often driving researchers to the brink of madness in their efforts to ascertain whether or not their object is the correct variant of the other twenty versions of the Madonna with Child, Adam and Eve, the same still life, the same interior, or the same casting.

The Yale University Library (not the Art Gallery) recommends that the needed information to ascertain the authenticity of the object at hand can be found in documents having nothing to do with art history—wills, insurance policies, especially when no images are available.

While many institutions stress that curators perform the research into an object’s history, the Walters Museum in Baltimore, MD, and the Carnegie Museum of Art inform us that “museum staff, fellows, and interns” perform research tasks. This is wonderful news for those who are thinking of entering the museum world and do so through internships, mostly unpaid. But one has to wonder whether the training underlying the complexity of such research is provided to fellows and interns by either museum staff or outside consultants, in order to ensure optimal result. This comment is not meant to disparage the many graduates from art history and museum studies programs and anyone interested in historical research and art history and their skill sets. Everyone has to start somewhere. Since there are no systematic training programs in the United States to prepare those interested in provenance research, and especially to help them overcome the challenges inherent to such endeavors, the onus falls on those seasoned practitioners, like the sole curator of provenance in the nation, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to ensure a framework for how research is conducted. Pressure, pressure.

To remedy the challenge of obtaining rather obscure documents to fill provenance gaps, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, also recommends more sharing of information between researchers and their institutions. Such sharing does occur but to what extent is unclear except through anecdotal testimonials provided by museums staff or outside researchers and professionals who have been contacted to provide needed information on objects.

In sum....

Research requires intellectual effort, critical thinking skills, the ability to correlate and assess, objectively and critically without any hidden agendas whatsoever, the content, value and relevance of documents and pieces of information from disparate sources that one gathers in order to apprehend the framework and inner workings of a story, in this case that of an object. The more in-depth the research becomes, the more time is needed to delve into the story, partly hidden, fragmented like a broken vase which shatters into dozens of pieces. Maybe that is the best analogy that I can come up with: provenance research involves the reassembly of a broken history, and sometimes we just cannot. But we have to do our best. Cultural institutions oftentimes treat art objects the way that emergency room personnel operate a triage center: one pile of objects is ‘verschtunken’, condemned, useless, no one can save them, research is futile.  Another pile of objects might be salvageable and some research should be done enough to have something to say about them because the research itself might be less complex than for the "vershtunken" ones, and the pile that everyone loves is the one where objects’ histories and stories are simple enough to stitch together, You know, the vase that breaks in only three pieces is the one we like the most, even if there is just a tiny fragment that you cannot find but, what the hell, the story line is saved and so is your reputation and the world turns as smoothly as it ever did. As for the other objects, they were “challenging.” Some are rescued, most are not. Let’s just hope that cultural institutions, writ large, do not really approach research as if they operated (no pun intended) a triage center with an implicitly acceptable casualty rate.

Museums come in different sizes and shapes. Their content varies widely and wildly and so do their stated purpose and mission. The one task that should be common to all of them is research into objects for which they are responsible either as owners or as borrowers. One obvious reason why research cannot take place is the absence of financial and human resources mustered and allocated to support such research and assist these institutions in doing their due diligence and providing their public with the added benefit of as complete a history as possible for the objects in their care. Who knows? Visitors might actually be interested in the objects that they view.  The fault for this lies squarely, in my view, in the lap of those who direct and fund cultural institutions, for whom, research does not rise to the level of a necessity but rather remains in that non-essential category as a luxury, fit to be cut at a moment's notice. Museum boards and those beholden to them should bear the ultimate responsibility for this miserable state of affairs of research in cultural institutions. Local, State and Federal governmental agencies in the US and ministries of culture in all other countries, share in that responsibility and should be held accountable for such a scandalous withholding of research funding.