Do you know the provenance of your institution’s fine art?

Learning an object’s life story can help avoid costly legal troubles—and the loss of fine art and funds
By: | Issue: August/September, 2019
August 28, 2019
Photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash

Margaret Bussiere is the vice president of fine arts insurance for national brokerage Risk Strategies.

An alumnus wants to give back to his college, so he donates a drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn that he acquired through an art dealer 10 years ago. School leaders accept the drawing and hang it prominently in the campus museum.

Years later, a historian researching artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II sees the piece and inquiries about its origins. University staffers dig into the work’s history and discover a suspicious gap in the chain of ownership between 1933 and 1945.

What should university leaders do? What risks and ethical responsibilities does the drawing now pose for the school?

Determining provenance

Provenance is the history of ownership of an object or the life story of a valuable piece of art, says Elizabeth Marlowe, an associate professor of ancient and medieval art history and the director of Museum Studies at Colgate University in New York. It may sound insignificant, but in the world of fine art, not having an accurate record can lead to a number of costly risks.

Curators, registrars and risk managers have an ethical duty to research an object’s background before it is acquired. For example, if a label says “from Greece,” it can’t be taken at face value. One must investigate. Was it found in Greece? Was it purchased there? Does the style simply appear to be from there? There is no set standard, so what provenance can entail remains fuzzy.

Further complicating the issue, objects found in collegiate collections are most often gifted. But museums are beginning to get ahead of the issue, says Victoria Reed, the Monica S. Sadler curator for provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

“You don’t want donors blindly buying works and assuming they can turn around and gift them to the museum with no questions asked,” Reed says.

Donors, collectors and the general public are starting to expect acquisition explanations and more due diligence as it relates to provenance. Make sure your gallery is ready.

Handling a suspicious piece

So what if you do encounter a gap in provenance? First, don’t panic. It is completely normal. Most gaps simply require some additional research and are only problematic if they are related to the Nazi era’s looting and smuggling of antiquities. If such a gap in provenance should arise, consult your legal department and begin the conversation about whether the work should be repatriated. The answer isn’t always a clear “yes” or “no.”

Reed says that a number of conversations are necessary to decide the outcome. Source country officials should determine if it is safe for the piece to be returned to the area, or if they are able to properly care for the items—before anything is packed for shipping.

A title claim—which occurs when a former owner of a piece challenges your holding of it—will not likely be covered by most fine art insurance policies since they’re typically designed for only physical loss or damage. A more generous policy may provide some limited coverage for demands to the title of a work, but solely for defense. These limits will be quickly gobbled up by attorney fees amid a dispute.

To avoid this, Aris Title Insurance Corp. President Mary Buschman stresses the importance of title insurance. This coverage can only be applied to an individual work following extensive research on the piece. Unlike an annual museum policy, title insurance is purchased once and applies to the object for its lifetime of ownership.

Buschman also points out the various levels of risk. “A gap in provenance might not be problematic,” she says. “Thirty years missing in Europe after the World War II-era is high risk, but 30 years missing in California might not be.”

After the research is completed and it appears that it is just a lost object, title insurance can be provided.

Protecting art away from home

Oftentimes, university museums loan pieces to other institutions outside the country. Use these instances as opportunities to check the provenance of the work and subsequently protect it by requesting “immunity from seizure” from the borrower. Prior to the loan, the borrower will file with their local government, which, if granted, will offer protection from confiscation while the piece is away from your facility.

Universities are in a unique position to grapple with provenance issues as leaders can educate and position the complicated ethics through an academic lens, while also drawing on expertise from various departments, such as legal and chemistry, says Colgate’s Marlowe.

As for the future of provenance research, there is a growing awareness of the issue. Perception has shifted and museums are being regarded as stewards of fine art—not permanent owners. Donors, collectors and the general public are starting to expect acquisition explanations and more due diligence as it relates to provenance. Make sure your gallery is ready.

Margaret Bussiere is the vice president of fine arts insurance for national brokerage Risk Strategies.