Friday, May 2, 2014

Provenance: terminology, museums and cultural property

My students, as well as readers of LM, will know that I have a strong dislike of the misleading term "provenance". I have written on this where I have suggested that we adopt two separate terms:
a. Collecting history: the way that an object passes from market to public or private collection.
b. Archaeology: the circumstances of discovery and removal from the ground.
Yet this is a term that museum professionals as well as academics working on cultural property issues use the term loosely. My twitter feed noted two recent examples:

My other emphasis is for the need for the identification of authenticated documentation. I have seen collecting histories based on documentation that appears to have been prepared for other objects.

So please can we tighten up the terminology?


Gill, D. W. J. 2010. "Collecting histories and the market for classical antiquities." Journal of Art Crime 3: 3-10.
The use of the term “provenance” when applied to archaeological material has been related to previous ownership. The collecting histories of over 120 items returned to Italy from North American collections have demonstrated the need for the careful and rigorous documentation of individual pieces. Such a history would chart the “life” of the object from the moment that it is discovered to the point when it is sold at auction or acquired by a museum or private individual. The impact of the scandal surrounding the “Medici Conspiracy” has led to the withdrawal of lots from a London sale in 2008, and a series of seizures from a New York auction house in 2009. The lack of collecting histories for individual objects suggests that the pieces were removed from their archaeological contexts, such as graves, by unscientific methods. The study argues that the widely used term “provenance” is essentially obsolete when applied to antiquities.

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1 comment:

Francesca Tronchin said...

I had always learned (and continue to teach it this way) that provenance referred to the history of an object after its excavation, or at least what could be known of its ownership history.
Provenience, on the other hand, refers to the archaeological context, the actual matrix in which the object was found.

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