Online Provenance: How Much Can We Trust?

REGESTRA
REGESTRA
Sep 10 · 5 min read

Provenance can be extremely important for authenticating an artwork and for establishing legal title. However, the fruits of provenance research are often a somewhat secretive affair with the brunt of an artworks provenance related documentation kept archived within their respective cultural institutions or auction houses. Recent initiatives focused on the restitution of Nazi looted artworks, artworks looted during colonization, and objects of cultural patrimony have spearheaded greater interest in publicizing both provenance research and affected collections. In the public art sphere, heightened interest in safe collecting practices, avoiding purchasing forged artworks, and generating returns on subsequent sales is also necessitating greater access to provenance research. Despite this landscape which calls for better publicized provenance and shared research, accessing complete provenance research is pretty rare.

To a seasoned provenance researcher, a transfer made in a certain location, a suspicious name, or a large period of time with no recorded ownership history could be huge red flags. They will use diverse strategies like physical examination, pouring through auction records, utilizing artist catalogs, interviewing persons of interest, and even traveling to physical locations that an artwork might have ties to. The goal is to create a chain of custody that dates all the way back to the artist who made the piece and sometimes even to materials a piece might have been comprised from in the case of antiquities and ethnographic works. Provenance research can be a lot like detective work. As with traditional detective work, the goal is to find hard evidence before making a claim. In provenance research, this could be anything from written communication, catalog entries, auction records, transfer documents, audio recordings, photographic documentation, and more. Whatever the case may be, a research project will accrue a great deal of documentation, depending on the complexity of the provenance, to substantiate any claims made.

Many institutions and organizations have embraced the call for greater provenance transparency by taking their provenance research out of their archives and putting it onto the internet. The most widely used standard for listing provenance used on most websites comes from the American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) Guide to Provenance Research by Nancy Yeide, Konstantin Akinsha, and Amy Walsh. A basic entry will list each transfer separated by either a semicolon or a period. A semicolon indicates a direct transfer between two entities while a period indicates an indirect or unknown transfer. Generally, each entry will have the name of the owner, where they were located or presumed to have been located, and a date (generally enclosed in parenthesis or brackets). A date might be the exact day or year a transfer was made (example: March 11, 1984), an estimate (example: c. 1984), or the owners lifespan or year of death (example: d. 1984). For antiquities, more emphasis is placed on the exact site where the artwork was excavated rather than the chain of custody (although both are important). This is because of local customs of ownership regarding excavation sites and also because most archaeologists consider the findspot to be the only epistemological evidence in determining where the work might have come from.

Below is a simple example from Salvador Dali’s seminal “Venus de Milo With Drawers,” currently owned by the Art Institute of Chicago:

Salvador Dalí, Paris, 1936; sold to Max Clarac-Sérou, Paris, c. 1964; sold to Patrick Derom, Brussels, c. 1990; acquired by the Art Institute, 2005.

Online provenance will come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some institutions will display their provenance using the AAM standard, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago, while others will have a more narrative standard, like the Getty or the Royal Collection Trust. Along with institutions beginning to list their provenance online, there are resources for both researchers to utilize and for owners looking to track a stolen artwork. Resources, like the Getty Provenance Index, allow researchers to search for variations in an artist or collectors name, pour through digitized catalogs, view dealer stockbooks and receipts, and even look through known collections. Auction houses, like Christies, are putting forward a greater effort to make past auction catalogs publicly available. Collaborative databases, like the Art Loss Register and Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal, allow users to scour artworks and collections that have been reported or are suspected to have been looted, thereby aiding with restitution efforts.

Despite provenance making its way online, it is usually not paired with the appropriate resources and documentation. This results in a list of events without any proof. Having the relevant documents available for each provenance entry would be ideal, however, proof can come in many forms. A donor who consented to an interview or to filling out a provenance questionnaire might not consent to that same interview being made publicly available. Information about an artwork gleaned from a catalogue raisonne or reference book might be under copyright. Limited funds, time, and server space are also prevent barriers. After all, many provenance research projects might have dozens of sources used to piece together a narrative. Some institutions, such as the Getty, might include a bibliography of all of the sources used to determine an objects provenance. Having an essay that details an object’s history and delves into how it was researched is also a reliable tactic.

My personal favorite way I’ve seen provenance displayed online is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Robert Rauschenberg Research Project”. The project sees the museum digitizing curatorial essays, notes, conservation reports, receipts, photographs, letters, and other resources related to the museum’s Robert Rauschenberg collection. Pertinent resources are available with each artwork’s provenance entry, making it very easy to substantiate most of the provenance claims without ever having to leave the site. It helps that most entries are very basic, but the project is still an excellent example of a museum thinking outside the box to make verifying an artwork’s provenance simple.

As provenance snakes its way online, many of the problems it has had in its physical form persist. Namely, the burden of proof. It is simply unrealistic to expect that institutions have the resources, means, and rights to digitize all of the documentation and research that goes along with provenance. So how do we improve? Providing multiple viewpoints of a work can help researchers observe evidence of provenance themselves from marks of ownership, lot numbers, and shipping labels. Essays and blogs that narrate the research effort can help others retrace the steps. Most importantly, include as much pertinent documentation as possible allows others to substantiate any claims made. In order to get the most out of online provenance, you need to establish credibility.

-Article by: Christopher Rahmeh

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