30 May 2018

Provenance research can be challenging

by Marc Masurovsky

In the two decades since the now-infamous Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets of December 1998 which produced the "Washington Principles." many American museums were placed quite naturally on the defensive since they became the focal point of attention of lawmakers, Jewish organizations, an emerging motley group of art restitution experts, including attorneys, researchers, claimants and assorted historians and NGOs.

In the years following the issuance of the above-mentioned Principles, declarations of faith made by American museum associations--the then-American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) to the effect that they had the "Nazi-era" provenance problem under control were rarely taken seriously, if at all. The specialized public associated either directly or indirectly with questions of art restitution and Holocaust-related thefts of Jewish-owned property, believed--rightly or wrongly--that a vast majority of museum professionals, including their curators, directors and trustees, held the view that whatever entered their collections was there to stay.  Moreover the threshold of evidence needed to consider returning an object was so high that no one on earth could rightfully claim to meet that standard. Hence, all was good in their minds; restitution would remain a dead letter. So they thought.

Since the late 1990s, Holocaust victims and their heirs have challenged American cultural institutions by asking their representatives for the restitution of their families'  objects which they believed had been spoliated, plundered, misappropriated during the commission of an act of genocide. In response to those claims, museum professionals and their legal representatives have tried to show publicly their "good faith" in meeting these historic claims on a solid footing of historical and forensic inquiry leading to some kind of reasonable outcome even if it meant, in the extreme cases, that they would have to part ways with the claimed objects in their collections.

In that spirit, a number of American museums have gone out of their way to convince the public that the research is challenging. The act of documenting the historical path of these claimed objects for the purpose of unearthing misdeeds which would call into question the museum's ownership of these objects poses challenges.  Here are three examples:
Provenance research can prove challenging as records may have been lost or destroyed in the upheaval of war. In addition, the passage of time and world events often make important information difficult to locate. Gaps in the provenance of a particular work may be attributable to different causes, from an owner's desire for anonymity to the unavailability of records of purchase and sale. Thus, incomplete provenance information does not necessarily mean that a work has been tainted by the events of the Nazi era. In addition, in some cases, a work may have been seized by the Nazis but later restituted to its original owners and subsequently donated or sold by them.

Stanford University
This research can be very complex and challenging due to a number of factors, including changes in the attribution and title; physical alteration of a work; the absence, loss, or destruction of transfer documents and other records; ambiguities in family histories; an owner’s desire for anonymity; societal and political upheaval; natural disasters; and poor record-keeping over time. Consequently, gaps in provenance are common and do not necessarily mean the object has a problematic past.

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

Provenance research is conducted by museum staff, fellows, and interns, and information generated by this work is continually added to individual object records. Although the museum seeks to verify and expand the provenance information associated with individual works of art in its collection, establishing a complete history of ownership can often prove challenging. The museum therefore encourages the sharing of information that might help to clarify the provenance of objects in its collection.

All I can say to the "challenging" nature of provenance research is: no kidding! 

And here we thought research had always been an integral part of a museum professional's daily tasks to do just that--research--before accepting an object as part of the institution's collection.

Live and learn...