Shades Of The Departed

July 18

A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column

We have all read, no doubt, those news stories about formerly looted (or otherwise questionably acquired) artworks being discovered in museums, and the litigation that ensues as former owners sue for their return. The case of the Bloch-Bauer Klimts or the ongoing dispute over Roman antiquities between the J. Paul Getty Museum and Italy are two such cases, and both of them hinge on a basic principle of collecting: provenance. Provenance is, quite simply, where something has been. Museums, libraries, archives, and other serious collectors record and research the origins and ownership histories of the things they own because of what these pieces of information add to their collections' value and integrity. Knowing the circumstances of a sculpture’s creation, who owned it and at what auctions it traded hands can prove (or disprove) its authenticity, and therefore establish its literal value. But this knowledge also contributes to a greater understanding of the object’s context in history and its significance beyond the information written on its pages or painted on its surface.

Leaving behind the problems of authenticity, looting, fraud and improper acquisition (because they are out of my depth), let’s take a closer look at the idea of provenance as it relates to contexts for understanding and viewing an object. A very rare copy of an important book, for example, is valuable on its own, but knowing it was once in the collection of a prominent collector who has inscribed his name on the flyleaf adds even more potential ways to look at it. Instead of being simply a rare book written by so-and-so and printed by so-and-so, it can also be studied as a book in the collection of so-and-so. Even the ownership inscriptions or bookplates of everyday people in books add more context, opening them up to analysis in terms of literary trends, reading practices or any number of other topics.

Provenance is one of my favorite things to research, which makes sense, because it is in many ways the genealogy of things. I am currently preparing an exhibition at work about this very subject -- specifically, about the way that everyday manuscripts, like cookbooks, or account books, or notebooks, are reused and added to by multiple generations of owners. Looking at how a cookbook, for instance, has been used by multiple individuals to record their recipes says something about the collaborative nature of cookbooks. Sometimes provenance information does not even include names of all past owners, but the evidence of multiple handwritings in a book still speaks quite a bit about the nature of books and their passage from person to person. Of course, even though it can be rewarding, provenance research and documentation is never really as sexy or exciting as it is in books like Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, Jonathan Harr’s The Lost Painting or A.S. Byatt’s Possession, so be warned! But these authors all understand that the stories behind objects and their travels through time are of importance and documentation.

The concept of provenance is something important to consider in organizing and describing our own personal collections. The story of how the newspaper clipping announcing her parents’ 1904 engagement (actually, the entire page of the newspaper on which it appeared) found its way into an adhesive-paged photo album (otherwise known as Chemical Sandwich of Doom) of my grandmother’s says something about the importance she ascribed to this family document and her desire to keep it safe. Similarly, recording the fact that my other grandmother and her sister each have half of their parents’ billets-doux says something about their affection for their parents (and perhaps a little bit about sibling rivalry!). Keeping track of the provenance of these things tells more about them, their creators and their custodians than the objects on their own ever could.

In terms of practicality, tracking provenance and ownership is simple. If you have an inventory of family records and items, as I discussed doing in the last Saving Face column, incorporating provenance notes documenting where they came from is relatively easy. And those of you who have already read Maureen Taylor’s work already know about having a provenance or ownership field in your photograph information files. Even if you don’t have an inventory or database file as yet, simply tucking in a note (in pencil on acid-free paper!) in the file folder along with your grandma’s letters or in the front endpapers of the family bible is better than nothing. Recording the information now, when you have it, insures that where your cabinet cards came from won’t be forgotten.

Copyright © Rebecca Fenning


Blogger valenaann68 said...

What an awesome article! I completely agree with everything you have written. I have always been one to question where records, books, etc. came from before they ended up in my possession. You have given me the desire to start notating where I get the items that I end up with. Thank you! :)

July 18, 2009 at 6:12 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

You're welcome! :)

July 19, 2009 at 12:11 PM  

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