Sunday, December 11, 2011

Curator of Provenance

Wow! Librarians understand the "thrill of the chase," and the subtle skills needed to follow cold trails and murky indications through to the end. I think OOTJ readers will be as fascinated as I was to find out about a new job at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Curator of Provenance. The Boston Globe reports today in an Ideas story by Geoff Edgers, "A detective's work at the MFA" about Victoria Reed, the MFA's new curator of provenance. Apparently it is still a new position and a rare one among museums world-wide. Her job is to trace the origin, or provenance, of works of art, when there is question about it. Edgers illustrates the need very nicely with a story about a medallion the museum was considering purchasing, that turned out to have been looted from a museum in Germany during the Nazi era. Due to Ms. Reed's careful detective work, the MFA dropped its purchase plans and the dealer has promised to return the looted medallion to the original holding museum.
This concern for tracing provenance is actually a new one in the art museum world. I recently read a fascinating article in The Smithsonian magazine, by Ralph Frammolino, "The Goddess Goes Home." The article tells about a remarkable statue that came on the ancient art market in the 1980's, of unknown provenance. A seven-and-half foot tall young woman striding, apparently through a wind, dressed in ancient Greek woman's garb, the statue was broken in pieces. She also was remarkable in that the head and arms were of smooth marble while the body is rough, a different stone. The lack of provenance and the broken nature are two hallmarks of statuary that has been looted, according to the article. Many museums were leery of buying this statue, as remarkable and beautiful as it is. But the J.Paul Getty Museum in L.A. was not put off. The curator there, Marion True, purchased the statue in 1986, concluding that it represented Aphrodite, and displayed her prominently at the museum, despite pleas from others on the staff that it was a "hot potato."
Afterwards, True reformed and became an outspoken critic of museums' willingness to purchase materials of questionable provenance. She pushed through a new acquisitions policy at the Getty, that pulled them out of the black market. So she was completely shocked when she arrived in Rome in 1999, to return 3 looted items to the Italian government and was approached by a prosecutor during the signing ceremony to hand back the items, to ask her to return the statue. She said, if they could produce evidence that it was looted, she would consider it. But it was very difficult to get such evidence. At last, by focusing on the "bottom" of the art trade, the Italian art police turned up evidence: thousands of Polaroids of artifacts, freshly dug, broken and dirty propped on newspapers in a car trunk. Investigators painstakingly matched these photos of dirty, "before" images to the clean, museum items around the world, over years, identifying objects in Japan, Germany, Denmark, the MFA in Boston, and, more than anywhere else, the Getty! Most of the 40 artifacts they traced to the Getty were acquired during Marion True's tenure as curator.
In December 2004, based on the Polaroids and other evidence, [Italian prosecutor] Ferri won a conviction of the middleman, Giacomo Medici, for trafficking in illicit archaeological objects. It was the largest such conviction in Italian history, and it resulted in a ten-year prison sentence and $13.5 million fine. The sentence was later reduced to eight years, and the conviction is still under appeal. The following April, Ferri secured an indictment of True as a co-conspirator with Medici and another middleman. She was ordered to stand trial in Rome. Ferri’s evidence list against True included Getty objects depicted in the Polaroids, plus one that was not: the Venus of Morgantina. He had added it at the last minute, he said, hoping to “make a bang.” Marion True was the first curator in the United States to be accused by a foreign government of trafficking in illicit art. (In her written statement to Smithsonian, she described her indictment and trial as a “political travesty” and said, “I, not the institution, its director nor its president, was used by the Italian state as a highly visible target to create fear among American museums.”)
Well, the goddess did, eventually, "go home," and Marion True resigned from the Getty in 2005, and her case in Italy was eventually dismissed when the statute of limitations had run. But the American museums were certainly shaken by the images of True, trying to shield her face from the Italian paparazzi as she walked to and from the courthouse. Museums like the Metropolitan in NY, the MFA in Boston, and more have returned cherished ancient artifacts to the home countries in recent years. The Globe article notes other moves that were not, apparently driven by the fear engendered by the prosecution of Marion True, I am happy to say -- apparently the museums were coming to this conclusion on their own, as well. And we see, now, that there is a new job category, at least at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. According to the Globe article, when museums wanted to purchase items before, curators with expertise in the object's area would do their own research on the provenance. But time pressure, as this job was squeezed in between all the "main" jobs would mean that the research would be skimpy too often. Also, Reed has been given a budget line for resources that is protected with a donation from a patron who recognized the importance of the need.
Not everyone totally admires the MFA or Reed for the work they are doing. New York art lawyer Raymond Dowd criticizes the lack of transparency of the MFA and Reed in his blog, Copyright Litigation: Copyright law, fine art and the courts. The MFA was involved in a suit over claims to several pieces of art by holocaust survivors families, and moved to avoid discovery of Ms. Reed's investigation into provenance. It does not sound like the MFA'a finest moment, but it's difficult to tell without hearing the MFA's side. The Globe article quotes Reed's reply to the attack, (does not appear in the online version of the story)
"I know that I sound defensive and I'm trying, as I get older to sound less defensive," she said. "But I think there are a lot of loud voices out there that are inaccurate." The next day, reed asks that even that mild criticism be struck from the record. She doesn't want to come off too strong.
She does defend the MFA, which she says shares the results of all its Nazi-era provenance research on its website on gallery labels, and in gallery talkes. The only exception is when there is a legal matter that includes correspondence that is privileged.
The decoration is the mysterious goddess from the Smithsonian website

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