Sunday, March 31, 2024

Provenance Research

I have referred to provenance (the history of an object) often but now it has become more important than ever. The ideal would be to trace every work of art as it changed hands from its creation. It is no longer sufficient to establish that it has been in an important collection like that of the Rothschilds. Where was it before, or after that? Then the Rothschilds bought and sold to each other but not directly. My gallery was involved in a number of these transactions.

The question of provenance is not limited to art. Here is an example from my personal experience. If you are assisting your child in applying for German citizenship as the grandchild of a former German citizen who had to leave Germany under Hitler, you need to document (with marriage and birth certificates) that your parents had been German citizens, that they were married to each other, that you were born to them, that you were legally married to your spouse and that the applicant is your child.

All museums research their collections. For years provenance researchers for private collectors and curators in museums were tasked with making enquiries. They have often written to me to learn what I knew about the provenance of objects my firm sold, even if they were sold before I was born. That was one of the reasons I donated the gallery’s archive to the Frick Art Reference Library so people could do their own research and not ask for my services (which were without compensation).

The issue, however, has become so fraught that museums are now setting up their own research departments, not leaving it just up to the curators, though they are the primary researchers. Think about this one, be sure to read the caption ...

I started writing this on March 22, the day I received a press release from the Metropolitan Museum, THE MET APPOINTS HEAD OF PROVENANCE RESEARCH. For those who are curious his name is Lucian Simmons ... he was with Sotheby’s auction house for many years. He will lead a team of 11 in coordination with the curators in their own specialties.

However, the specific individual and institution are not what is interesting in itself.
It is part of a growing worldwide legal response to a current change in attitudes. In most cases, it is not an issue of theft as we usually think of it. Aside from cases of Nazi war loot, countries have started to make claims against museums demanding the repatriation of works of art, some of which were looted in wars and many more that were sold but had not left their countries in conformance with export regulations. In September of 2022, Ella Feldman wrote an article in Smithsonian Magazine titled “Investigators Seize 27 Greek and Egyptian Antiquities From the Met”. Here is a bronze statuette of Jupiter, dated circa 300 A.D., which was being returned to Italy.

In March of last year, Rhea Nayyar wrote an article in Hyperallergic, saying that over one thousand objects in the Met’s collection were linked to 18 known antiquities smugglers. Confiscations have recently extended to private collections, most notably in the case of antiquities collector Shelby White.

The United States has new and amended cultural laws such as NAGPRA (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) which requires museums to review their collections in consultation with the relevant Native tribes regarding exhibition and research as well as repatriation. This image from The Guardian with the caption: “An Alutiq mask from 1870 given to the Met in 2017. Alutiq tribal representative told ProPublica it was appropriate to show an image of a mask”.

The Met has an inventory of 1,500,000 works of art to research in this new world, so a staff of 11 in provenance research does not sound like too many. More and more museums are finding themselves obliged to dedicate resources to the herculean task.

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