After the complexity of explaining the scale of art crime, the impact on art and archaeology, and the difficulty of solving the resultant problems, the next challenge is explaining the limits of art crime research. Provenance is only one of the fields critical to preserving the material culture of the past—conservation, restoration, and scholarship are also essential. All are specialties within other specialised fields, and they can overlap, be compartmentalised, be blurred together, and be at odds as only facets of the academic world can. Even for people in that world, it can be confusing.
Provenance and art crime research focus on protecting objects and sites from deliberate damage—looting, theft, vandalism, treasure hunting, iconoclasm, and other disagreeable human hobbies. Conservation is a rigourous technical discipline that protects material and sites from deterioration: e.g. sun, salt, water, or the inexorable process of aging. Conservation demands precise knowledge of materials, how to stabilise, and preserve them; unrolling papyrus safely, preventing wood from drying and cracking, or keeping metal from being consumed by oxidation, are all things that conservators must do.
Restoration, at its best, is nearly a subset of conservation, though not identical. (I don’t refer to the 19th century kind of restoration to make objects look pretty, but to the modern sister science to conservation). Restoration must take all the demands of conservation into account, and then try to reconstruct a piece so we can imagine its original state. Museum-quality restoration, whether of art or architecture, has a “five feet, five inches” rule: from five feet away, one should only perceive an object as a whole, seeing its totality. From five inches away, nose pressed to the glass, one should be able to distinguish between the original and the reproduction pieces. Restoration can help stabilise a broken pot, for example, but would still have to take into consideration what the replacement pieces should be made of, what kind of adhesive would be safe to use, and whether the restoration can be reversed in the future, if we should need to correct something. We are constantly learning more about our own past and how to preserve it.
Essentially, one could say that provenance protects the past from human destruction, conservation protects it from environmental degradation, and restoration brings it back to life, for now and hopefully the future. In the end, all these disciplines support the same goal—learning more about ourselves.