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I came across an excellent point during my reading: some art professionals propose that the term “collecting history” is more relevant than “provenance”, and should be strictly used for accuracy. The argument is that “provenance” is too vague, that it refers only to an object’s origins, and that what is more crucial is its history since. Collecting history means (or should mean) a complete record of ownership from a piece’s creation or discovery to the present.

Since the real point of provenance research is to determine legitimate ownership of an object, every transaction is important, as past errors can be buried over time, and a major current ethical concern is correcting them. A 300 year-old painting may have changed hands a dozen times, and if any of those exchanges were questionable, the immediate doubt —who properly owns the painting— is matched by the ethical question, who should? Some art experts argue that this complexity is lost in the term “provenance”, which implies that if you know something’s origins, it is legitimate. This is a valid doubt, as blurring these definitions is a technique that has been used by sellers to hide gaps in the records of artworks.

For example: “From the private collection of So-and-So, Zurich, acquired by Mrs. So in 1979.” (Great. Where was it before that?) “An exquisite piece from the Unspellable period, Unpronounceable, Cambodia. Discovered during excavations in Unpronounceable in 2000, and meticulously restored at X Facility.” (Marvellous. Did the people who “excavated” it have permission to take it?) Questions like these can be easy to miss or skim over, even during due diligence, particularly given the difficulty of performing said diligence. (Collecting history is a complex topic, and one I will continue to examine).

On this blog, I may sacrifice strict legal-grade accuracy for readability (scandal!), but will keep these distinctions in mind, particularly if I think precision will impact understanding. So, a reasonable, but not dogmatic effort.