Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Mania for Provenance

There is, without question, a mania for documenting provenance in antiquities trading these days and I suppose critics of these markets will contend that the credit belongs to them. However, I tend to think that the actual credit belongs to the trade, which has responded to pressures created by critics in the way that a free market naturally does, i.e. by placing value upon attributes such as provenance which diminish obstacles to free trade.

Although I have definite ideas as to the importance of free trade and the actual value of provenance, I have never in principle opposed the desirability of provenance. In an ideal world it would be delightful to be able to provide complete provenance with every acquisition. Not only would that definitively address objections of rational critics of private collecting, such secure provenance would be valued by collectors.

Provenance to a find spot or origin predating UNESCO 1970 is prized these days, however critics of private antiquities collecting such as Paul Barford have urged that even if such a definitive universal standard is impractical, there is still significant value in documenting provenance to a date prior to that, which at the very least reduces uncertainties involved and could, over time, perhaps evolve into acceptable provenance.

Whilst I have hitherto resisted attempts to impose mandatory provenance documentation on grounds of feasibility, I am pleased to report that there are now realistic grounds to believe that transition to a full disclosure of provenance so far as it is known can feasibly be provided to every buyer without a significant increase in the cost of online transactions. Over a long period of time that would presumably address nearly all licitness concerns.

The question now becomes whether such incremental provenance documentation would be satisfactory. Feasiblity does not equate to zero cost. "Per transaction documentation" would not be free, though its cost might be reasonable.

If it became apparent that incremental provenance documentation might become a rational basis for a settlement of differences, it would be possible to expand upon these observations.


Blogger daniel said...

Such opinion can come only from somebody whose mind is completely consumed by the dealer-collector-mentality that leaves one who is interested in cultural heritage buffled - provenance should be the interest of the REAL provenance of an object, the archeological context, the question of where an antique object originally came from. THE main problem of the illicit art marked is that provenance is (at best) shrouded and in most cases doomed for good. When asking about provenance, somebody who REALLY cares about cultural heritage should not need to ask which Sir Soandso of the 19th century had an Egyptian statue put up in his lobby, but from which Egyptian tomb that statue originated!

3:08 AM  
Blogger Dave Welsh said...

Daniel's comment could come only from somebody whose mind is completely dominated by a radical archaeology-oriented, cultural property statist mentality.

Such a perspective understandably leaves those primarily interested in ownership of cultural objects for recreational and/or scholarly study purposes baffled.

Provenance is the history of ownership or custody of an object. What Daniel refers to as "the REAL provenance of an object, the archeological context, the question of where an antique object originally came from" is not provenance but provenience, which is a very different thing. Confusion between provenance and provenience is quite common among opponents of private collecting of ancient artifacts.

Daniel further states that "The main problem of the illicit art market is that provenance is (at best) shrouded and in most cases doomed for good."

This comment betrays further intellectual confusion:

1) "Illicit" means (in plain English) illegal. This has a precise legal meaning, i.e. violating the laws that prevail in the jurisdiction where an action, event or transaction occurs.

That is however not what many opponents of private collecting mean when they use the term. In the radical archaeological argot, "illicit" means "unprovenanced." That is one example of the sort of spin-oriented doublespeak that prevails in that argot. Its general effect is to convey a very misleading and untrue impression, that trading in and collecting unprovenanced antiquities is illegal. In reality it is perfectly legal to collect unprovenanced artifacts in the United States, other English-speaking nations and most European nations which do not prohibit private ownership of antiquities.

What instead makes possession of an artifact illegal is a criminal act (as defined by laws of the jurisdiction wherein the possessor resides) tainting its title. Such was the case in US vs. Schultz, one of the key decisions in the interpretation of US cultural property law.

2) Provenance is not "the art market's problem." Provenance and provenience do both have a value in the free market, however that is determined by what collectors are willing to pay for objects whose history has been documented. That value can be very high in the case of important works of art and antiquities, not least because it is important in establishing clear title and authenticity.

In the case of objects of small individual value such as coins and postage stamps, costs associated with documenting provenance and/or provenience are out of proportion to the value of the object. The free market accordingly does not reward documenting provenance and/or provenience of such low value objects unless there is some unusual factor, e.g. traceability to a famous collection or a numismatically important hoard.

3) Daniel and those who join him in opposing the free market in art and antiquities should realize that standing on the sidelines criticizing collectors and the market accomplishes nothing, other than irritating collector and dealers, and possibly gaining some individual notoriety for extremist views.

The only way to make any genuine progress toward transforming the existing free market into one that attempts to protect cultural and archaeological heritage interests is to work cooperatiovely. That however seems to be impossible for those whose ideological beliefs bias them against participating in, or in any way appearing to accept, trading in and private ownership of ancient artifacts.

Until that ideological barrier can be overcome, I do not see how any progress can be made toward resolving this conflict.

9:12 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home