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Provenance research – MoMA’s 4-person team

Francesca Aton, How the Met and Other Major US Museums Are Approaching Provenance Research, ARTnews, 28 February 2024

COLLAGE DANIELA HRITCU FOR ARTNEWS/PHOTOS GETTY IMAGES.

By May 2023, after more than a year of repeated seizures of looted or stolen artifacts by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had apparently had enough. In an internal letter to staff, Max Hollein, Met director and CEO, announced that the museum would create a dedicated four-person provenance research team to proactively identify looted artworks in its encyclopedic collection.

Later published on the Met website, the letter read: “The emergence of new and additional information, along with the changing climate on cultural property, demands that we dedicate additional resources to this work.”

This action followed six such seizures conducted in 2022 alone, the Manhattan DA’s office taking antiquities from Greece, Italy, and Egypt totaling $1.1 million, and a $25 million statue of a Roman emperor removed illegally from a Turkish archaeological site. Meanwhile, an investigation published last March by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), in collaboration with the UK-based nonprofit Finance Uncovered, found more than 1,000 relics in the Met’s collection with links to traffickers, 309 of which were on display.

For the Met, proactive provenance research has long been part of its history, employing full-time provenance researchers who have worked quietly in the background for decades, investigating the histories of its 1.5 million holdings. A Met spokesperson told ARTnews that the museum plans to announce the hiring of the new head of provenance and other members of the team in the next month—about 10 months after publicizing the team’s creation.

The Met isn’t alone in creating an in-house department dedicated to this research. Since 2020, the Art Institute of Chicago has maintained three roles solely dedicated to provenance research, but that team’s top position has been vacant since last June. What will come of a dedicated provenance team remains to be seen.

As with other museums, whose holdings extend back to centuries of artistic production, these researchers have worked within specific curatorial departments, reporting directly to the department head or chief curator. The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, itself having been the subject of several court-ordered and self-initiated restitutions over the years, is committed to keeping that approach. One staff specialist, Judith Barr, began working on the Getty’s provenance project, which constitutes a particularly sizable online catalog and an editorial platform that publishes on related topics regularly, via its antiquities department.

“Provenance doesn’t have to look the same [in] every museum. Every museum has a different structure. Every museum has different needs. We have different resources,” Barr told ARTnews.

While the provenance research may be housed in a curatorial team, the Getty has a dedicated collections information and access team that maintains, among other resources, an in-house provenance syntax guide, an orderly system for tracking an object’s history. “When you go online and … see our provenance,” Barr said, “you see it all looks the same … because we have the resources of this team that’s able to have built out their structure, and is able to help monitor and make sure that what we’re putting into [the collections management database] is standardized. That’s a really important resource that a lot of museums don’t necessarily have the … staffing for.”

Though there is now “more support and more awareness,” according to Barr, “provenance really requires long-term investment in a collection. You need to be familiar with the objects.”

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 15:  Actors Dolph Lundgren and Florian Munteanu are seen on set filming 'Creed II' at the Rocky Statue and the 'Rocky Steps' at The Philadelphia Museum of Art on March 15, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images)
The Philadelphia Museum of Art.PHOTO GILBERT CARRASQUILLO/GC IMAGES.

Collection seizures and repatriation ceremonies have grabbed headlines over the past five years, but that wasn’t always the case. While provenance has long been an essential—albeit long-neglected—component of art historical research, it has been several years since it last made news, as it did in the 1980s and ’90s, when ARTnews ran several articles about Nazi-looted paintings in multiple public collections.

But, as Met director Hollein wrote last year, we are currently witnessing a changing climate—specifically when it comes to objects taken from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Indigenous peoples—that has led to a job boom when it comes to provenance research–related positions at top museums in the United States.

Victoria Reed has been a provenance researcher at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA Boston) for the last 20 years. When first starting out, she was told by older museum colleagues there was no future in provenance research; her commitment to the field has proven those naysayers wrong. “As the field has grown, staffing needs have increased at museums. We’re seeing many museums in the United States hiring more provenance researchers,” she told ARTnews.

But how much of this is just PR buzz? In researching this article, ARTnews reached out to nearly 20 US institutions actively investigating the provenance of their holdings. A little more than half responded to multiple queries for further details on their ongoing provenance research and the structure of the museum’s research staff. Only a handful agreed to speak on the record. Though many museums have been dedicated to quietly doing this kind of research behind the scenes, it’s alarming that so few are willing to discuss the work being done.

Provenance research within a museum’s collection is complicated: the objects under scrutiny span wide-ranging eras, cultures, and areas of study, including Greco-Roman antiquities and art and artifacts taken from Africa and South and Southeast Asia. The provenance of those from the World War II era can be especially fraught. Further complicating the research is the Mexican government’s recent call for the repatriation of artifacts it considers essential to the national patrimony, and the Biden administration’s recently updated guidelines to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), requiring museums to inventory their collections of Indigenous artifacts in full within the next five years.

The MFA Boston is expanding its efforts, with provenance becoming centralized among the curatorial team. When Reed began, she explained, “museums were primarily looking at Nazi-era provenance. They were assessing their collections and seeing where they might have gaps or questions about works of art that may have been looted as a result of the Holocaust or World War II.”

Since then, however, the scope of that work has changed. “In the first decade of the century, museums began to scrutinize the provenance of their antiquities, particularly classical antiquities and other archaeological materials. The museum guidelines changed in 2008, requiring any new acquisitions of ancient archaeological materials to have a documented provenance back to 1970,” Reed said. “There was an increased expectation for museums to do provenance research on their incoming acquisitions, as well as [objects already in the] permanent collection.”

Now within the field, she added, “are calls to examine works of art that may have been acquired, traded, or looted under periods of colonial occupation, whether that is European occupation of countries in Africa or settler colonialism here in North America.”

Another veteran in the field, Cathy Herbert, with 22 years’ experience at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) as coordinator of collections research and documentation, spoke similarly of these developments. “It’s been interesting to see [provenance research] expand,” she said. “I think that’s partly due to the Washington principles [first introduced in 1998], which talk about reaching just and fair solutions with claimants. I’ve seen that sort of principle starting to be applied to cultural property.”

She continued, “We are making progress. And a big part of that is looking at the question of repatriation claims, not just from the point of view of what’s strictly legal and therefore should be returned. But now looking at things through an ethical lens.”

Emphasis on the questions of ethics, Herbert said, has been integral to the field’s recent growth. This, along with “transparency—being upfront about how objects came into the museum, and also being much more careful about making acquisitions going forward” are crucial “so that we don’t fall into the same mistakes,” she added.

Herbert cited such notable moments as the Met’s return of the Euphronios krater to Italy in 2008 as a “big wake up call for museums” and “a signal that old collecting practices were not going to be countenanced anymore.” The latest “watershed moment,” she continued, came with the Sarr-Savoy restitution report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2018, which sought to address the return of African art objects acquired during French colonization, and “unleashed a flood of interest.”

Sarpedon’s body carried by Hypnos and Thanatos (Sleep and Death), while Hermes watches. Side A of the so-called “Euphronios krater”, Attic red-figured calyx-krater signed by Euxitheos (potter) and Euphronios (painter), ca. 515 BC. H. 45.7 cm (18 in.); D. 55.1 cm (21 11/16 in.). Formerly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (L.2006.10); Returned to Italy and exhibited in Rome as of January, 2008.
Sarpedon’s body carried by Hypnos and Thanatos (Sleep and Death), while Hermes watches. Side A of the so-called “Euphronios krater”, Attic red-figured calyx-krater signed by Euxitheos (potter) and Euphronios (painter), ca. 515 BC. H. 45.7 cm (18 in.); D. 55.1 cm (21 11/16 in.). Formerly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Returned to Italy and exhibited in Rome as of January, 2008.PUBLIC DOMAIN. PHOTO BY JAIME ARDILES-ARCE, HTTP://WWW.ARDILES-ARCE.COM/

Though the field of provenance research is expanding, growing pains remain. Noticeably absent in the discipline is a codified format for cataloging information; there are general guidelines and primers on the subject from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), but the most current of any of these is dated 2017 (the oldest is from 2001). The International Council of Museums is currently revising its code of ethics, the revision expected to be ready for approval by the triennial meeting in 2025. Still to come are a centralized database for sharing research (however, singular projects like Digital Benin are emerging) and an organization to bring professionals together.

The digitization of records and databases alone has already been helpful for researchers. Herbert cited, for example, the use of a Jewish genealogy website to confirm personal details of a family that had sold an artwork to the PMA. Barr, of the Getty, described another such instance wherein she searched sports periodicals recently digitized by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, and found the sale of a famous statue in the Getty’s collection known as the Mazarin Venus. It was surprising to learn that it had been sold at auction by someone with a connection to the statue of whom they had previously been unaware.

Aside from training workshops offered through the AAM and the AAMD, two of the country’s top museum organizations, and a few museum studies degrees and certificate programs such as the Siena Program through Tulane and the Nazi-Era Art Provenance Research training program through the University of Denver, there are no educational programs or training specifically for provenance research, which has the net effect of significant on-the-job learning for anyone entering the field today.

Take for instance, Lynley McAlpine, who started working with the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) a couple years ago, through a series of grants and fellowships, before being hired full-time last year as associate curator of provenance research. Over the course of McAlpine’s research efforts, SAMA, with holdings in ancient Mediterranean, African, Asian, and Oceanic art, accorded her role sufficient import to create a position for her, working with the curatorial team to identify objects from the permanent collection in need of further research.

Since securing a permanent position, McAlpine serves as an example among a younger generation of researchers at smaller institutions who are also pursuing this work. She said she hopes that museums will continue to be responsible in addressing issues of provenance by “show[ing] the value of [the research] so that their trustees and leadership feel that this is really something that they need to commit to.”

The provenance researchers who spoke with ARTnews said they have found that their colleagues are eager to share resources and findings with each other. And, lacking a professional organization, there’s a small yet engaged group of committed professionals who have taken matters into their own hands: enter Provenance Connects, established in March 2023 by MacKenzie Mallon, a provenance specialist at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and Jacques Schuhmacher, a provenance research curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

“I think it benefits all of us when we work together as a team,” Mallon told ARTnews. “In provenance research, we can’t be an island. We work better as a group where we’re all tackling the same things. And not just working as a team within our own institutions, but also working collaboratively outside of our institutions with other researchers and people who are doing this work.”

Together, Mallon and Schuhmacher have so far created a broader network within provenance research between those working in the US and the UK, as well as a few in the Netherlands who speak English, to share information and research questions. The group meets quarterly on Zoom and is open to professionals in the field. In just under a year, it has grown from about 25 to more than 80 participants.

“It’s such a testament to the need for collaboration and cooperation in the field of provenance research,” Mallon said. “Provenance research has to be a collaborative field. And historically, that’s been difficult,” owing primarily to collection-related confidentiality restrictions.

She added, “We move the field forward faster when we move it forward together. Provenance Connects is all about those connections.”

While this spotlight on provenance research may dim in the coming years, it seems more likely that its importance as an integral part of institutional holdings will only grow. It may come at a price for museums, though, as funding these positions and possible repatriations can be costly. The LinkedIn listing for the Met’s head of provenance, for example, showed a salary range of $140,000 to $160,000 per year, while the NAGPRA coordinator and community liaison listing on the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries website cited an annual salary between $95,000 and $120,000.

This upward trajectory, however, stems from a shift in collecting ethics and a broader understanding of the geopolitical impact of provenance research. Ultimately, this kind of information can be used to illustrate historical narratives, including the history of colonization, the biography and tastes of former owners, trends within the art market, and the context of institutional collections. As it stands, institutions worldwide have two options: to be proactive in doing the necessary provenance research or to be reactive in addressing issues among their collections, regardless of the bottom line.