Skip to main content

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.

Bookmark and Share so Your Real Friends Know that You Know

Comments

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.

Popular posts from this blog

Marble bull's head from the temple of Eshmun

Excavations at the temple of Eshmun in Lebanon recovered a marble bull's head. It is now suggested that it was this head, apparently first published in 1967, that was placed on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Tom Mashberg, "Met Museum Turns Over Another Relic With Disputed Past to Prosecutors", New York Times August 1, 2017 ). The head is reported to have been handed over to the Manhattan district attorney after a request was received from the Lebanese authorities.

It is suggested that the head may have been looted from an archaeological storage area at Byblos in the 1980s during the Lebanese civil war. Mashberg has rehearsed the recent collecting history:
The owners of the bull’s head, Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, say they have clear title to the item and have sued Manhattan prosecutors for its return.  The Beierwaltes bought the head from a dealer in London in 1996 for more than $1 million and then sold it to another collector, Michael …

Mithras relief from Tor Cervara

A fragmentary relief of Mithras was discovered in 1964 at Tor Cervara on the outskirts of Rome. It was acquired by the Museo Nazionale Romano.

A further fragment of the relief was acquired by the Badisches Landesmueum in Kalrsruhe in 1976. The source was an unstated Swiss dealer. This fragment has been reunited with the rest of the relief [press release].

Today a further fragment of the relief was reunited with the other pieces. This had been recovered during a raid in Sardinia.

The Toledo skyphos and a Swiss private collection

The Attic red-figured skyphos attributed to the Kleophon painter in the Toledo Museum of Art (inv. 1982.88) is now coming under further scrutiny following the research of Dr Christos Tsirogiannis. The skyphos shows Hephaistos returning to Olympos.

Tsirogiannis has identified what appears to be this skyphos in five photographs in the Medici Dossier. The museum acknowledged that the skyphos had resided in a 'private Swiss collection'. Tsirogiannis suggests that this is probably a reference to Medici.

Enquiries to the museum by Tsirogiannis elicited the information that the skyphos had been acquired from Nicholas Koutoulakis (although that information does not appear on the museum's online catalogue).

The curatorial team at the Toledo Museum of Art will, no doubt, be contacting the Italian authorities to discuss the future residence of the skyphos.

For further discussion of the Toledo Museum of Art on LM see here.

Reference
Tsirogiannis, C. 2017. "Nekyia: Museum ethics an…