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"A history of provenance was not required back in 1991"

A New York dealer whose gallery is a member of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art has recently made the claim: "a history of provenance was not required back in 1991" (see also here).

What does he mean? First, the word "provenance" is (at best) ambiguous and, I would suggest, is obsolete. I have written on this topic in an academic article elsewhere. Essentially what is implied by this dealer is that the declaration of the collecting history was not required.

And that brings me to a second point. Who required the collecting history? Is the dealer suggesting that the information was required by law? Or was such information provided as part of the "professional" service offered by dealers? (And what does the omission of such information by such dealers tells us about their attitudes toward collecting histories?) And were potential buyers wanting this information so that they could avoid buying recently surfaced antiquities?

So to point three: what was special about 1991? Were people concerned about documenting the collecting histories of antiquities in that year? On a formal basis the US Government had passed the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) in January 1983 [text]. This makes provision for the requirement of appropriate documentation for the items. And if the dealer was not the importer, the documentation, if accurate, would have revealed the information about previous handlers (or handler). The point about CPIA is that it emerged from the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The point is this: by 1991, dealers in North America were well aware that there was an issue about cultural property that included archaeological material. This raises issues about enforcement by US authorities as well as attitudes relating the acquisition of cultural property by museums and private collectors, as well as the handling of such material by North American dealers and auction-houses. The Medici Conspiracy has made it very clear that ignoring the implications of UNESCO and CPIA had major ramifications for a number of major North American museums, for some North American private collectors, for some auction-houses based in North America, and for some North American based dealers of antiquities. The ignoring of collecting histories, or rather the lack of them, had toxic implications for those handling or acquiring such recently surfaced antiquities.

There is a further issue. Was the ethical aspect of handling recently surfaced antiquities ignored or sidelined in 1991? And what have been the implications of such an attitude for museums, private collectors and dealers?

And dates matter. I note that twenty years before 1991 (but still post the 1970 UNESCO Convention) a New York Gallery sold some Roman fresco fragments to the J. Paul Getty Museum. In November 2006 it was announced that those fragments would be returned to Italy. The reason? I will let the readers come to their own conclusion.

A dealer in 1991 may, perhaps, have felt that collecting histories were unimportant to determine or to declare. But twenty years later, in 2011, due diligence and transparency are fundamental elements of those who trade in cultural property. So if details of the collecting history become known, or appear to be suppressed, they should, I would argue, be made public.

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Marc Fehlmann said…

I would argue that Mr. Eisenberg's claim that "a history of provenance was not required back in 1991" is not quite correct. It may well be that in general, buyers of antiquities did not ask for such information as they would have done if they were buying an Old Master painting or an Impressionist, but in the 1980s and much earlier, there were already collectors who wanted to know where their pieces came from, and they accurately recorded such information. Then there were dealers such as Prof. Dr. Herbert A. Cahn in Basel or Heidi Vollmoeller in Zurich who often gave the history of previous ownership of an artefact if they felt that it would be relevant - or increase the value. When asked, one would also get an answer of some sort or even a written statement on an invoice. Furthermore, already in the 1960s, Cahn used to give lists of publications in his catalogues that lead to previous owners of an object, but this might be explained with the fact that he came from a numismatic tradition where the "provenance" of a coin adds significantly to its value. I never understood why many in the antiquities trade did not work like dealers in master drawings and paintings. Surely, confidentiality is crucial, but since 1932, there always were many different reasons that made the record of the history of an object just as fundamental, at least in Europe.

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