03 June 2016

Provenance research 2016

by Marc Masurovsky

The “theory and practice of provenance research” seminar/workshop at the Museum of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX, has wrapped up its fourth season. This seminar is the outgrowth of multiple visits I made over the past decade at the invitation of the Museum at Texas Tech University in Lubbock to share information about cultural plunder, and how provenance research can serve as a tool to strengthen ethics in the management of collections and improve our knowledge of the objects contained therein. The idea has always been to foster a clearer understanding of how looted cultural and artistic material could find its way in the global art market as non-restituted property or back into the hands of their rightful owners.

Central to our discussions throughout the seminar was the following truism: 

Research into the ownership histories of artistic and cultural objects which changed hands between 1933 and 1945 under obscure and potentially illicit conditions, redefined commonly accepted notions of provenance research, thrusting this obscure discipline under the klieg lights of Holocaust justice.

Until the mid-1990s, very few people outside the sheltered world of art history, a certain art history that is, one focused on “art” produced before 1945, knew what provenance was all about including me. Yes, I admit, the word “provenance” meant nothing to me then. I might have engaged in such research without knowing it while investigating the movements of assets plundered by Nazis and their collaborators, from the scene of the crime inside occupied Europe through the “neutral” countries (Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal), before being transferred in many instances for shelter and/or reinvestment in the Americas, mostly North America. These assets included works and objects of art.  My focus then centered on the men and women who conveyed these plundered assets from point to point, in search of “safe havens.”

Fast forward to 1998.  A heady year, no doubt about it. 

An avalanche of news stories overtook an unprepared and largely ignorant international press corps which experienced great pains to explain what the hullabaloo was all about, especially six decades after crimes of plunder had been committed against Jewish owners of art collections, elevated to crimes against humanity at the International Military Tribunal of Nurnberg in 1946.

Events regarding looted art and its restitution (or lack thereof) cascaded one after another:

Almost overnight, the provenance of an object—its history and the chain of ownership that it describes—became intimately connected with an international quest for restitution to rightful owners of these looted art objects. Provenance research had become restitution research, to the quiet consternation of many museum professionals and art historians.

Eighteen years later, some of the dust has settled, although emotions still run high over how to conduct provenance research and whether objects identified as looted should be returned to their rightful owners.

Not a week goes by without a story in some corner of the world that documents illicit trafficking of antiquities, illegal sales of sacred indigenous artifacts in Western European showrooms, attempts at recovering art stolen during Hitler’s despotic and maniacal reign over Germany and three-fourths of Europe. We get regaled by stories of an unbridled art market impervious to the ethics of ownership for thousands of objects traded for hyper-inflated sums, not only in New York, but in London, Paris and showrooms at the antipodes of the earth, in free-ports, tax-free black holes where nothing is documented, nothing exists on paper, except when you traverse the force field that separates us mortals from the treasures that lurk behind protective barbed wire fences and high walls, in Geneva, Singapore, west Africa, and many other locations around the world.

Provenance research is an intellectual, multi-disciplinary methodological and analytical endeavor, characterized by a critical, empirical approach applied to the search for and examination of historical information about objects, their owners and possessors, and the paths that they borrowed from the time of creation to the present day. The approaches and methodologies implicit in provenance research vary according to those who conduct it and for whom.

Efforts to reconcile these varied approaches have been few and too far between, owing to the “vested interests” of those who request the research to be done. Indeed, many practitioners in the art world—museums, auction houses, galleries, etc.—remain skeptical if not indifferent to the idea that a provenance should make clear who the legitimate title holder is to the object whose history is described in the provenance. The lack of constructive dialogue between these traditional practitioners and non-art historians who engage in provenance research for reasons unrelated to the exercise of art history, remains an enduring obstacle to the establishment of a unified code of provenance research, which acknowledges commonalities in the varied approaches while outlining the differences and divergences produced by vested interests.

Knowledge is power and those who control the knowledge, or at least convey the illusion of control of that knowledge, exert an undeniable influence over the way the (his)tory of ownership of an object is drafted and presented to the public. Until recently, no one questioned who held title to an object or how title was transferred for an object suddenly displaced during societal disruptions, which might have included, but not limited to:

the siege of Paris in 1871, World Wars I and II, the Bolshevik Revolution, anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine, natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, internecine rivalries between competing factions within a large feuding family, the enactment of discriminatory laws singling out entire groups and ethnicities leading to evictions, expropriation of property and marginalization, loss of property through duress, civil wars, mass arrests and the list goes on. 

These events, although not directly pertinent to art history, do inform and (re)shape the history of an object simply because the object evolves among people located in places which might have been subject to these disruptions which would have had a measurable or negligible impact on the legal ties binding the object to the affected owner of that object.

External factors weigh heavily in the drafting of a provenance: their apprehension and inclusion in the story of the object clarifies and enriches, sometimes complicates our understanding of the history of ownership of an object.  They matter immensely when the question surfaces: who holds title to the object in question? How did the object go from point a to point b? who was involved in the transfer?

When cultural institutions and businesses transacting in art objects sidestep deliberately the multitudinous gyrations and brusk movements that are inherent to the historical process, they obscure, skew and distort the provenance of art objects.  This misshaping of historical narrative lies at the core of the debate over provenance research.  By acting in this fashion, the institutions that promote culture and transact in art objects censure the narrative of the art object and deprive the public from reading and examining it, from learning.  Pedagogy and truth sacrificed on the altar of “vested interests”?

Should we go so far as to propose that this approach to the provenance narrative is revisionist, in the same way that any attempt to rewrite the history of the Holocaust by minimizing or relativizing its breadth, scope and impact, is viewed as revisionist, a conscious exercise in denial and rejection of history?

Although provenance research should not be held hostage by the cantankerous dyad of provenance and restitution, an ethically, rigorous quest for historical information into the ownership history of an art object may lead to a reassessment of its current ownership and may suggest that the rightful owner is not the current holder of title to the object.  For these and other reasons, cultural institutions must fully integrate provenance research into their day-to-day practices and especially the findings resulting therefrom and establish ethically sound procedures for addressing the revised ownership information of objects in their collections.

Once again, provenance research is a serious, inter-disciplinary methodology whose practice enriches our understanding of artistic and cultural objects worldwide. Its ethical and critical practice should be conducted without any prejudice or bias.