In mid-October the class had a field trip to New York City, and apart from visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the home of a private collector, there was time in a gallery selling antiquities. (I am aware of the name of the gallery but will not disclose it here; for some New York dealers in antiquities click here).
I am grateful to Professor Marlowe for allowing me to summarise (and post) what happened next. The class apparently witnessed a potential customer wanting to buy a piece of ancient jewellery. The client asked if it "had provenance". The salesperson then assured him that it had "excellent provenance" because it had been published three times. The proof was then produced: three recent sales catalogues of that particular gallery.
There was a subsequent discussion between the class and the owner of the gallery about the nature of "provenance"; the owner suggested that publication gave "provenance". When Professor Marlowe explained to the class, "this is related to what we were talking about last week, the difference between provenance and provenience and the problematic ambiguity of those terms", the owner responded:
yes isn't it just ridiculous what passes for provenance these days, but you know, that's the way it works .The owner apparently remained steadfast in their assertion that the gallery's pieces were fully "provenanced".
Professor Marlowe asked me to comment on this "interpretation" of "provenance". There are several things to observe.
- Do the publications demonstrate that the object was known prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention?
- Do "in-house" publications merely provide a "paper trail"?
- Paper trails do not always provide "good provenance". Consider that at least seven of the pieces returned to Italy from North American museums, a dealer, and a private collector had the "provenance" of well-known London auction-house (which no longer trades in antiquities at that location). Reflect also that many of the pieces withdrawn from the London sale of another auction-house also had the same "provenance".
- Publication in a sale catalogue does allow the object to come to public notice. Many of the large auction-houses now put this information on-line. So how widely are the catalogues distributed? (I checked the distribution list for the New York gallery in question on WorldCat. I found a single catalogue listed - some 3200 miles from where I am sitting.)
- Is it enough to check with an outside agency, such as the Art Loss Register, that the piece has not been stolen? (Antiquities can get stolen from museums and the ALR can assist with their return.)
- Should galleries check with the cultural section of relevant embassies? Should they distribute their catalogues to foreign governments?