Books | Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems - Museums Association

Books | Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems

The complexity of proving provenance is brought into sharp focus in this engaging guide to best practice, says Anna Garnett
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Anna Garnett
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“Provenance matters”.

These first words of Arthur Tompkins’ introduction form a powerful opening statement to this welcome multi-authored volume that presents practical approaches and ethical considerations in the complex and often challenging work of provenance research.

Written in association with the International Foundation for Art Research, this accessible handbook distils more than 50 years of experience and brings together key names to offer a vital interdisciplinary guide to best practice.  

A detailed historical overview of the subject and its significance provides the context for a holistic assessment of best practice case studies, which lend themselves to practical application by the reader.  

For example, in his assessment of the ethics of provenance research and the art market (chapter 10), Gareth Fletcher presents four hypothetical case studies for readers to apply to their own due diligence practice, as well as a range of general ethical principles intended to assist those researching this “uniquely opaque industry”. 

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Recent case studies about plundered antiquities relating to Daesh (the self-styled “Islamic State”) and identification of art objects looted by the Nazis during the second world war will also be pertinent to readers (the January/February 2021 issue of Museums Journal listed the repatriation of an illegally removed ancient Sumerian plaque from Iraq). 

While the contributors mainly focus on the provenance research of objects defined as “art”, this subject is relevant for all types of collections: a point well demonstrated by a section dedicated to the current problems and priorities surrounding the illicit antiquities trade (part V).  

Simon Mackenzie’s and Donna Yates’s overview of different methodologies used to investigate the global trade in black-market antiquities is particularly valuable for readers who wish to understand the wider context of the so-called “grey market” (chapter 13, Researching the Structure of the Antiquities Trade). Here, the authors assess the many challenges surrounding the “polluting” of the antiquities market with black-market objects, turning it “grey” as a result.  

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907. The tumultuous journey to establish the artwork’s provenance is described in-depth in the book  © Neue Galerie New York

In their “Future Recommendations” for the field, Mackenzie and Yates highlight the need for more thorough provenance research by antiquities traders and advisers, whose “half-hearted provenance research” and neglect of due diligence, they argue, must improve to prevent this routine infiltration of looted objects onto the antiquities market.

Of course, this statement could equally be read as a caution for all those who work with antiquities, including in museum contexts, and as a push to encourage us all to improve our own practice.  

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When faced with the complexities of this field, as outlined by the authors, it can be difficult for museum professionals to know where to begin their provenance research journey. In this case, I would highly recommend the sections presenting practical tools and different research methods available including data and databases, scientific analyses, documentation, and archival study (part II).  

The authors’ detailed (yet surprisingly accessible) overviews of their different subject areas form clear and concise starting points for effective provenance research. Readers are encouraged to follow up the comprehensive list of “select resources” at the end of the book, including relevant web links and further reading.

The volume does not include any images, which is perhaps a missed opportunity: the integration of images of specific objects referenced by the authors for example would have allowed readers to better visualise the context of the case studies.  

As a museum professional who spends many hours researching object provenance, this engaging volume will form a key part of my toolkit. Its comprehensive and honest approach will be especially useful for students and museum professionals, as well as those on the other side of the coin: collectors, auctioneers, legal professionals and those in law enforcement, for all of whom provenance should matter now more than ever. 

Anna Garnett is the curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology, London, and a graduate of the MA Transformers programme 

Edited by Arthur Tompkins, Lund Humphries, £29.99. ISBN 9781848222762 

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