23 May 2018

Provenance research: what to do?

by Marc Masurovsky

The fault lines around contrasting views and understandings of provenance research might appear to be subtle to the uninitiated but, in reality, the fissures are brought about as a result of the legal implications of provenance research.

In the view of this writer, a provenance is the history of ownership or possession of an object from the time of its creation to the present days. The older the object, the more likely it will be difficult to account for every movement and place where the object was situated once it left the studio of its maker. But as you all well know, even so-called modern works can have elusive provenances such as “private collection, Zurich”.

The contrast in approach, in my view, stems from the fact that one school, mostly articulated by museum professionals, which we will refer to as “traditional” is not necessarily interested in injecting economic, political and social history into the documentation of the fate of an object, especially as it pertains to the 1933-1945 period. For some strange reason, that entire period remains a taboo subject, difficult to express even in the literature that museums and galleries develop around the objects that they display. This same school also argues that one will never know exactly what happened to an object, maintaining that there is no concrete evidence that something “bad” happened to the owner of the object and, even it did, it might not have affected the legal title to that object. After all, the object might have been sold “legally” and we just don’t know about it. Hence we can never ascertain that the object was in fact misappropriated for racial or political reasons, and therefore should not be restituted to its purportedly rightful owner. This view remains the favorite weapon of individuals who work for those who are best described as the “current possessors” of the object being claimed, namely cultural institutions—public and private.

The other school to which this writer belongs argues that context plays a very important role in determining the fate of an object. One might call it the “organic” school, for lack of a better word. It argues that the object, the place where it is and the person in whose possession it is, represent the three cardinal points around which the history of the object is articulated against the matrix of history which evolves over time and space. Put simply, an object that changes hands in Munich, Germany, and which belonged to a person of the Jewish faith may be moving around for reasons compelled by the change of regime in Germany on January 30, 1933, thus signaling a potentially violent and illegal transfer of ownership after Hitler’s rise to power.

A research training program takes on vastly different features if it follows the “organic” school or the “traditional” school that warrants that the actual fate of an object will never be exactly known, raising the possibility that there could be a document out there that could prove that nothing untoward occurred and the object changed hands legally even in the context of racial and political persecution and genocide.

You would be surprised, but this “traditional” school of thought has led to negative outcomes for claimants more often than not.

When we think about establishing provenance research training programs in colleges and universities, we realize that some schools might adopt one or the other approach. A balanced program would offer both approaches to future practitioners, advising them of the pitfalls and benefits inherent to either approach.

Some participants at the Columbia Conference were very adamant about promoting their own views of how provenance research should be conducted, whether “traditional” or “organic” which is a good thing because it gave those in attendance an opportunity to weigh both in their own minds.
Any museum-guided provenance research training program will likely promote the “traditional” view that provenance research is first and foremost about documenting the itinerary of an object from creation to the present day, with history being relegated to a back seat.

Any provenance research training program guided by the notion that it is essential for the provenance to document who the actual owner of the object is promotes the “organic” view and will assign greater weight to history and the environment in which the object evolved, beyond the narrow confines of conventional art history.

These contrasting views have become an integral part of the landscape of provenance research, influenced and skewed by decades of litigation and legal wrangling between current possessors—in most cases, museums and galleries—and claimants.

The geography of “traditional” vs. “organic”
Where do we find “traditional” views as opposed to “organic” views of provenance research?
In my view, the “traditional” approach is upheld in the hallowed halls of cultural institutions of a certain size located in large metropolitan centers. It can also be found among those who teach in museum studies programs and art history programs. One can even argue that the “traditional” view suffuses the curriculum of these academic programs that train future curators, art historians and other cultural professionals.

The “organic” view, strangely enough, finds its strongest advocates among archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists who take seriously the matrix from which objects are extracted. They are joined by those who research the fate and history of objects lost by claimants and their families. Some government officials, mostly in Europe, have eased their way into an “organic” view of provenance research, especially in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

The future of provenance research
There is no game plan right now. The most important next step is to institute formalized academic offerings in colleges and universities that introduce students to both methodologies—“traditional” and “organic”—as well as in specialized workshops organized by non-profit organizations.

The now-extinct Prague-based European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) offered a Provenance Research Training Program (PRTP) from 2012 to 2015 through a series of five workshops staged in five different cities—Magdeburg, Germany; Zagreb, Croatia; Vilnius, Lithuania; Athens, Greece; and Rome, Italy. Both approaches were offered to participants although most workshops tended to lean towards an “organic” view of provenance.

By contrast, the Washington-based American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have offered half-day and day-long seminars characterized as workshops in which they introduced curators, librarians, archivists and art historians to the mechanics of working with objects and documenting their history. These programs fit into the “traditional” mold and will likely continue. Likewise, the Smithsonian Museums appear to be thinking about developing some kind of “traditional” provenance research training program of their own.

Proposals abound about how to produce a more structured approach to training. Some efforts are taking shape in France. Provenance research is now being introduced to universities in select cities—Angers and Paris. The Free University of Berlin continues to offer a curriculum on “degenerate art” which tends to steer away from controversy and thus finds comfort in a more “traditional” approach to provenance research. This is perhaps due to the fact that funding comes from the government. On the other hand, in Munich, the Zentral Institut für Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History) promotes through its research projects a more “organic” vision of provenance research that gives extra weight to the mechanics of the Third Reich, the relationships of power and interest between various groups in the art world, into the understanding of an object’s pathway through the 1933-1945 period. These relationships and “interests” , it is argued, shape the fate of the object.

There is talk about asking the European Union to establish a Europe-wide entity with EU funds that would coordinate research into the history of objects under review for possible taint of looting or misappropriation. The idea makes eminent sense since national governments have skirted the issue rather successfully for the past 70 years. It might just require such a supranational effort to compel provenance research and training of practitioners. For such an effort to even get off the ground, entities and individuals with an “interest” in these matters of restitution, looted art, provenance research, will have to work together, coalesce their strengths and assets in order to lobby successfully for the creation of a funded unit at the EU level.

And still others argue that the only way to provide training is through some sort of international association of provenance researchers. According to this position, this association (which does not yet exist) will be responsible for coordinating at the national and international level all activities pertaining to provenance research and training. For this to happen, national chapters have to be established and more importantly, a clear definition of provenance research has to be adopted. If we follow this duality of “traditional” vs. “organic”, will the association try and reconcile these two approaches or will it favor one over the other? Who will make that determination? Without a clear understanding of what provenance research is, how can such an association see the light of day?

Maybe several associations are required if the two approaches cannot be reconciled. That might not be the worst thing to do. The only organization of provenance researchers that exist today is in Germany, the Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzforschung (AfP) and includes mostly German researchers who are for the most part working for municipal, regional or federal museums and cultural institutions. Expand this idea and we are talking about fundamental different outcomes and approaches shaped by the employer. In most of Europe, the employer is the government. In the United States, the main employer is a private non-profit or profit-making cultural institution, with the exception of municipal, State and Federal museums. Hence, an international association would become a cacophony of conflicting interests, because some researchers would be government civil servants, others would be working for the private art market, while others would be working for claimants and advocacy groups.

Define your terms

Before anything concrete can happen to transform provenance research into an internationally-recognized profession with its requirements, methods and approaches, its licensure procedures, we all must be clear about exactly what provenance research really is, and how it is practiced. Failing that, there is nothing to talk about. Instead of an association and its bureaucratic pitfalls, let’s instead establish a strong global network of individuals and entities interested in the history of ownership of artistic, cultural and ritual objects, a network that would be inclusive and not exclusive, one with a maximalist understanding of the idea of research. That approach might help shape the contours of a generic definition of provenance research on which everyone could agree without feeling as if they betrayed their principles and ideals.