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.