23 May 2018

Contextual analysis

by Marc Masurovsky

When looking at an object which is the subject of a claim, one has to know why it is “claimable.”

In other words, the chain of ownership was allegedly broken at some point in its history and the presumed rightful owner never recovered his/her property.

A provenance might not reflect this particular incident whereby one owner loses control of his/her property/the object/through illicit means.

After all, the history of the Third Reich is not contained in a provenance for an object that circulated during the 1930s in Nazi Germany, but anyone reading the provenance should be keenly aware of the historical events that occurred as backdrop to the change of ownership of an object and ask: did those events exert an influence on how this object changed hands?

That is one aspect of contextual analysis.

In this regard, we mean that an object’s history must be viewed in the larger context of events occurring at the time that it changes hands so that we can determine whether that change of ownership was licit or not.

There are also the familiar patterns of complex relations between the presumed owner and colleagues, friends, and business acquaintances alike, which might have weighed in some manner on the ownership trail of the object. In other words, when looking at an object’s history, one must also look at the environment in which the object “evolves.” That is another aspect of contextual analysis.

When discussing forced sales or duress, whereby an individual has no other choice but to sell his property because of the degree to which this person is being exploited, abused, persecuted by representatives of institutions governed by principles that conflict with the owner’s ethos, identity, function and status in the society where he/she operates. The question here is to determine whether or not a forced sale took place. This is all about context. Here again, one has to understand the historical and societal pressures exerted upon the presumed owner of the object to determine whether he/she was in fact compelled to divest him/herself from property that otherwise would have remained unsold had conditions been different. Context and analysis of that context to flesh out the gaps or the spaces in a provenance between different listings of purported owners.

Back to contextual analysis:

Based on the above, can it ever be objective? After all, your forced sale might be my freedom to sell opportunity regardless of who is in power in Germany. What process would close the gap between those two divergent views? How much research would be needed to make a compelling argument for one or the other, but not both? In the Grosz v. MoMA case, inadequate research led to flawed outcomes. The same might be said for the Martha Nathan case against museums inToledo, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan,  and maybe even for the Claudia Seger case against the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

How much contextual analysis is warranted in provenance research? As much as is required to make a reasonable determination of theft or of consent in the way that an object changes hands.