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"Fully provenanced": overheard in a New York gallery

A key issue in the discussion of recently-surfaced antiquities is the establishment of a documented history, or as some choose to call it "the provenance". Professor Elizabeth Marlowe of Colgate University teaches an interesting-looking module, "Small Classical Bronzes in the Picker Art Gallery: Looting, Faking and Collecting Antiquities in the Post-Colonial World". One of the aims of the course is to "examine the epistemological and ethical problems inherent in the study and collecting of unprovenanced antiquities".

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.
  1. Do the publications demonstrate that the object was known prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention?
  2. Do "in-house" publications merely provide a "paper trail"?
  3. 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".
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.)
  6. Should galleries check with the cultural section of relevant embassies? Should they distribute their catalogues to foreign governments?
But what to readers think about this? Do in-house publications count as "provenance"? Leave a comment!


livius said…
Even if in-house publications did count as "provenance", by their very nature they only describe one step, the last step, in a artifact's life journey.

Ambiguities aside, "provenance" can't possibly mean "evidence that the current owner is the current owner". There's already a term for that -- proof of ownership -- widely used in real estate, insurance, car sales, etc.

At the very least, provenance has to mean "where the current owner got it from". It's still a ludicrously brittle standard, but at least it's not a the risible proposition that an object has provenance if the current owner bragged about owning it.
Just a brief comment. The cultural sections of embassies are not always so well organized that they could be helpful in tracing the history of any particular object which may have come from their country or may have been found there. In addition to
sending sales catalogues to embassies,
it may be useful to send a copy to the Art Department of the University in the capital of the relevant country.

It may be better to get away from "provenance" and "provenience" and stay with "history". A seller should provide a "history" of the
acquisition of the object. In other words, he or she should provide information that is sufficient for tracing the history of the object before it was acquired by the present owner. Kwame Opoku
David Gill said…
I agree about the use of the word "history". Those selling antiquities need to present the documented collecting history of a piece.
Ed Snible said…
I checked "provenience" on the dictionary aggregator and the first five dictionaries did not distinguish between "provenience" and "provenance".

OneLook does provide a direct link to Archaeology Wordsmith which explains that provenience is the position "in time and space, recorded three-dimensionally".

I think it's reasonable to say that if an ancient coin first appears in an auction catalog in October 2008 that the object is "provananced" back to October 2008. It's a *very weak* claim but technically correct. The salesman was lying when he (or she) claimed that the provenance was "excellent". Maybe the in-house publication will be useful in the coming decades and centuries.

Many excellent libraries, such as the American Numismatic Society, keep auction catalogs but don't participate in WorldCat.
ckp said…
As a member of Professor Marlowe's class, I was quite shocked when all of this happened,especially since I had never been to an antiquities gallery before, nor witnessed such a transaction.

However, I think that it really points to the problem with the use of provenance as the only important word in such a dialog and some collectors' ignorance of its true meaning. Going along with Dr. Opoku's line of thinking, I would advocate adding words to the antiquities vocabulary and making such words have a very specific definition. It would be one small step in making the whole antiquities market more transparent. This this way, there wouldn't be the problem of "what passes for provenance today".

-Claudia Piacente
Colgate University
Class of 2009
Matthew Anaya said…
I also went on the trip to NYC. It was suprising to see so many anitquities for sale. I wonder how many of them have sufficient documented history.

At the gallery, the saleswoman did not state that the object was legal, i.e it was acquired before 1970. She stated that it had provenance but she did not stress that it satisfies the law. This is a problem because now the man may have an illegal artifact that will have to stay in the private sphere.

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