by Marc Masurovsky
An opinionated exercise in text analysis (a segue to a similar undertaking)
Disclaimer: this deconstructive undertaking is not meant to judge a person’s good will, intentions, or motives, nor a person’s qualifications, merits, and contributions. Its purpose is to show how words can be interpreted, read, and critiqued. The text itself was picked because it is emblematic of the existing literature relative to the prickly questions of cultural property, cultural heritage, preservation of cultural assets against looting and their illegal trade on the global art and antiquities market.
I will confine this exercise to a paragraph which appeared at the beginning of an article entitled “Buying and selling antiquities in today’s market”, which was published in Spencer’s Art Law Journal in Spring 2012 (Vol. 3, No. 1, to be precise).
“Buying and selling ancient art requires the prudent purchaser to research the provenience (country of origin) and provenance (history of ownership) of an object and to evaluate the available information in the context of the legal framework discussed below. In my experience, objects that have a plausible history of ownership and origin, even if not fully documented, can, generally, be safely purchased. A partially-documented history does not necessarily indicate fresh looting or illegal export. Even objects that entirely lack history are also not necessarily smuggled or looted. The demand for documented provenance is a relatively recent phenomenon and many owners simply failed to keep records of their objects, which they treated like other household possessions. Nevertheless, potential penalties for the unwitting purchaser of smuggled or stolen objects include civil forfeiture (for which even bona fide purchasers are rarely compensated), and, for those who knew, or in retrospect should have known, jail. The good news is that prudence and diligent investigation will be rewarded. Even well-provenanced antiquities at the top of the antiquities market can be undervalued compared to other segments of today’s art market and will afford satisfaction for decades and validate the owner’s good taste and erudition.”
“Buying and selling ancient art requires the prudent purchaser to research the provenience (country of origin) and provenance (history of ownership) of an object and to evaluate the available information in the context of the legal framework discussed below.”
The word “provenience” is more accurately defined as the physical location and cultural context from which the object originated.
Research is the sine qua non for documenting the history and characteristics of a cultural object. Every object has a history of ownership, the starting point of which should be its maker or creator. When dealing with antiquities, that might not be possible, however, due to the immense passage of time, the circumstances under which the object was found, its physical condition, and the context of its location.
Regardless, from the get-go, the question of provenance enters a legal framework as concerns the history of its ownership.
“The purchaser is a prudent person”. What does prudence actually mean? How is prudence exercised? Is prudence a code word for “due diligence”? If so, why not just insert that expression into the sentence?
We find out later on that if the prudent purchaser has undertaken a “diligent investigation,” he will be ultimately rewarded for his efforts. Sure, but what constitutes a diligent investigation? After all, the effort displayed by the purchaser prior to acquisition is critical in assessing the level of risk associated with the purchase of an object for which there might be little or no documentation. What we do not know here is how to “… evaluate the available information…”: What if there is no information to evaluate due to an elliptical, minimalist or near-invisible provenance?
Let’s read on:
“In my experience, objects that have a plausible history of ownership and origin, even if not fully documented, can, generally, be safely purchased.”
“a plausible history of ownership and origin”
According to many art appraisers, too often times, their clients show up asking them to authenticate cultural objects before they are valuated. They submit provenances that are not only embellished but are utter forgeries. The appraiser grows accustomed to fiction masquerarding as provenance information when the expected provenance should reflect the stark reality of an object’s history for the purpose of obtaining the appraiser’s stamp of approval. In that regard, the appraiser becomes the first line of defense against deceptive practices in the art market.
The recent Knoedler forgery trial constitutes a cautionary tale. As we have been reading in the past several years, the sale of a painting by Mark Rothko which was not a Rothko by the now-defunct Knoedler art gallery contributed to the fatal demise of this eminent art establishment. Multiple warning flags had been raised by appraisers, art historians, fellow dealers which went unheeded and were dismissed for reasons that are still not too clear, greed being too easy an explanation. Knoedler and its president invested in a “plausible history of ownership and origin” of the pseudo-Rothko painting. As they say, if it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and quacks a duck, it might just be a duck or we can pass it off as a duck. Similarly if a painting looks like a Rothko, “radiates” like a Rothko, and is described as a Rothko, then it might just be a Rothko and we can sell it as a Rothko. Sure… the word “plausible” sends shivers down my spine and reminds me of the Nixon years when “plausible deniability” became the preferred line of defense of those who engineered the Watergate scandal.
If the history of ownership of an object is “plausible,” should you buy the object even if all you have in the provenance is “John Smith, 1969” and the object itself is older than Methuselah? The narrative underlying the object—its provenance—MUST BE believable, for better or for worst. Usually, the reputation of a person involved in the transaction helps to enhance the plausibility factor. That alone might compensate for any lacunae in the provenance. After all, how could you question an established international art historical authority, a senior curator in a distinguished museum, a person with a wall covered with PhDs, awards and other marks of distinction, a highly-regarded collector/dealer? People do make mistakes, though. Errare humanum est. it is the misguided, but very human, belief in pedigree which warps instincts, common sense, logical reasoning and critical thinking. In the case of Knoedler, the unfortunate buyer-the De Soles family– found the Knoedler story “plausible” about the Rothko’s bizarre history and went home with a fake painting.
If a provenance is plausible, does it have to be real? Believability… plausibility… fictions are plausible, too. We all love a good story. After all, a fictional account is partly anchored in real life, even if it is twisted and embellished. Similarly with provenances, how simple can it be to embellish, twist or otherwise construct a provenance? Why worry about history as long as I fall in love with an object that I truly desire? And if the story about it is appealing, so much the better.
What if the provenance reads: acquired on the Paris art market, 1977? What is the art market? That is not a person with a phone number and an address. It is impossible to verify. But it is plausible because we know that the object transited through the City of Lights. Hence, we have an unverifiable geographical marker that places the object in a fuzzy spatio-temporal relationship with a known location called Paris, France, in 1977.
“not fully documented”:
Should you be distressed by the fact that there are no documents or very few to justify the past travails of the object as it passed through multiple sets of hands, crossing deserts, seas, and oceans, only to land in a safe harbor within the Western Hemisphere?
“A partially-documented history does not necessarily indicate fresh looting or illegal export. Even objects that entirely lack history are also not necessarily smuggled or looted.”
Agreed, but who said anything about looting and illegal exports? A customs officer should know the difference between a forged certificate of ownership and one that is authentic. That’s a big “should.” What if a nice gentleman working in the foreign affairs ministry of a source country is only too obliging and produces the necessary forms that allow illegally extracted objects to leave his country in exchange for unspecified favors or to please an even more corrupt senior official? How many officials are trained to tease out the anomalies of documentation produced by exporters of antiquities and works or objects of art, especially when those objects circulate through one, two, maybe three intermediaries in as many countries before landing in a Western market eager to absorb the objects? Should I be suspicious just because there are only two names in a provenance for an object that is three thousand years old which came from a continent far away from where I am, produced by members of a culture that no longer exists? Methinks the answer is yes. Multi-source due diligence would attenuate and greatly reduce the risk of being snookered, taken in, by dubious documentation.
“The demand for documented provenance is a relatively recent phenomenon and many owners simply failed to keep records of their objects, which they treated like other household possessions.”
I agree with Mr. Pearlstein.
In the ideal world, anyone buying art or antiquities or both should request full documentation for their purchases to justify title and licit ownership, just in case that, in the future, anyone accuses this purchaser of being party to a theft. The past three decades have signaled a major cultural shift in the way that art objects and antiquities are traded, displayed, and exchanged, especially in the so-called “market countries” [read, those in Western Europe, and increasingly, in the wealthy pockets of Asia] to borrow the phraseology of Mr. Pearlstein and the CPRI. The fact that requests for documentation constitute a “recent phenomenon” should tell us something about how art and antiquities are purchased even to this day. It has taken two world wars, the deaths of tens of millions of civilians and combatants, the plunder of dozens of nations on three continents to awaken collectors, dealers, and museums to the notion that perhaps the legal and ethical fallout of their indifference to blood-soaked provenances might not be viewed as kindly nowadays as they had been when “might made right” and “to the victors went the spoils” were the ruling mantras of the global art market and its defenders.
So, yes, it is only recently that documentation and more fleshed-out provenances have become ‘de rigueur’ in the international art and antiquities trade.
“Nevertheless, potential penalties for the unwitting purchaser of smuggled or stolen objects include civil forfeiture (for which even bona fide purchasers are rarely compensated), and, for those who knew, or in retrospect should have known, jail.”
I stumbled on “The unwitting purchaser”.
One of the great myths perpetrated by the art and museum worlds has been the martyrdom of the Innocents, who acquired objects innocently, unwittingly, thinking that they had clean title to those objects, from people who lied and misrepresented their origins and histories.
Unwitting! Here again, one must pause and wonder: the “prudent purchaser”, once she believes a provenance to be “plausible” should go ahead and purchase the object of her dreams. God forbid that, like a damsel in distress with no knight in armor around to save her, she should be the unwitting party to a sleazy plot aimed at unloading looted, smuggled, plundered objects on the art market! Even worse, she is acquiring them from reputable art houses!!
What can she do? How could she have known? Well, for one, her education and upbringing should have led her to ask questions first and plunk down her money later. The unwitting victims, the innocents, wallow in their own naïve silliness. How simple! Well, if they are innocent, who’s the guilty party?
And now for an abrupt conclusion to this deconstructive exercise.
The good news is that prudence, characterized by multi-source due diligence, an inquisitive eye, a critical mindset and an acquired immunity to pedigree, titles, and diplomas, will produce its fair share of just rewards. Just don’t drink the koolade and do not believe everything that you are told.
Trust your gut. If the provenance is non-existent, get a second and third opinion, the way we would if you disliked the initial diagnosis for a medical condition. No harm in it. After all, you are the consumer and you are the one who is about to spend a fair amount of money on an object that might not be what it purports to be and comes from where you are told it does.
If none of that matters to you, I cannot help you and God be with you.