Glossary: Forgery

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At first glance, the word forgery seems unnecessary for a specialised glossary; it’s a common word, readily understood. The briefest definition I found was: (n.) the action of forging or producing a copy of a document, signature, banknote, or work of art. But as a strict definition, couldn’t that apply to a museum gift shop print? The next dictionary was clearer: (n.) 1) The act of forging, especially the illegal production of something counterfeit. 2) Something counterfeit, forged, or fraudulent. So it is not enough that something be a copy, it must be a copy intended to deceive. But how does one determine intent when looking at an object? The definition of forgery may be simple on its face, but in the context of art, its meaning is complex. Continue reading

Modernist Meditation

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Courtesy Portland Art Museum

I was at the Portland Art Museum this morning (like many of Oregon’s features, an under-the-radar gem, with an impressive scope to its collections), listening to a charming lecture from the curator, and suddenly found myself distracted by images from the modern and contemporary galleries. Leaving aside my personal opinions on modern art, I began to wonder—has the twenty-first century created unstealable art? Continue reading

Links: AIA and Archaeology Day

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For a bit of a field trip from A Year in Provenance’s usual topics, this Saturday, 20 October 2012 is National Archaeology Day, the second annual event from the Archaeological Institute of America, encouraging interest in archaeology. Local chapters of the AIA and affiliated organisations put on events throughout the country, for children and adults (archaeology is one of the few professions that let adults have fun, too—why should children be the only ones who get to play in the dirt?). Search for events or read the related blog at www.nationalarchaeologyday.org. Continue reading

What Provenance Doesn’t Do

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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. Continue reading

Glossary: In Situ

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In situ, a Latin expression used in English and other languages, is possibly the most important term in archaeology. It means the original site, spot, or context, and is usually mentioned when discussing an excavation, where an object’s findspot must be accurately recorded. In archaeology, the value of an object is in its relation to the space and the other objects around it; analysis and technology can reveal what something was made of, how, and when, it could even hint at how it was used, but only the context can tell us what it meant to the people who used it. This is a crucial concept in studying provenance, the history of an object—knowing where something came from means little without knowing where it started. (N.B. the term doesn’t really have any application in the fine art world, only archaeology).

Why is it important that an artefact be discovered in situ? As one archaeologist said, “it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”

The Thomas Crown Affair

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An art crime researcher watching a heist movie for leisure is probably as bad as a personal trainer doing push-ups to unwind, but even intense intellectual scrutiny of caper films can’t escape one thing—they’re fun. Watching a movie with someone who can debate its accuracy and presentation is either fascinating or maddening, so out of compassion for my friends, I try to keep quiet, but I can’t help making mental notes. Perhaps it should be heresy that I can enjoy movies about art theft, but The Thomas Crown Affair lets me forget about the ugliness for a while and lose myself in the game. Continue reading

New Links Page and Opening Link

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For anyone interested in knowing more about the vast, complex world of art crime, A Year in Provenance will now feature a links page, comprising the best resources on the internet. The global presence of the internet in the digital era may become the pivotal tool for reversing trafficking trends and protecting the world’s cultures, and this links page will try to provide the best sites for finding out about any facet of this interdisciplinary field: news items, ethical codes, threatened sites, missing art, repatriation efforts, and the list goes on. Since the difficulty of the internet is not finding information, but sifting through it, each link will be added along with a short post on what to find on the site, what it does best, and what to use it for. Continue reading

The Impact of Art Crime II: Cultural Loss Is Forever

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In economics, there is a model called the broken window fallacy. The example is a thug that breaks a store window: a new window, supplies, and labour all have to be expended to repair the damage, none of which would have happened without that crime. Money is spent, things are happening; doesn’t that stimulate the economy? Two seconds’ thought shows the absurdity; destruction is not productive, and crime does not create prosperity. (If that still seems abstract, imagine being the owner of that store). Now imagine that there were no windows on earth that could replace the broken one. People could offer different kinds of walls, a door installed in the hole left by the window, or a security grill, but there could never again be a window for people to look into. Continue reading

New Glossary Feature

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Thanks to recent comments- and a few blank looks- A Year in Provenance now features a glossary page (see the menu bar at the top of each page, above the header, or Menu, below the header on the mobile version). Researching a subject that crosses boundaries, disciplines, and frequently, languages, flings a host of terminology at the reader; this new glossary project hopes to make this less baffling, if not actually clear! Even the specialists don’t always agree on meanings or usage of terms, so I shall do my best. Each new term will be added with a short post discussing what a term means in context, and what ambiguity, if any, remains; the glossary page will have the brief, precise definition for quick reference, and each term will be linked back to its explanatory post. Continue reading

What Provenance Research Can Do: Looting

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Of all forms of art crime, looting of archaeological and historical sites is the most destructive. When an artwork is stolen from a gallery or museum, there is always a risk that the work will be unwittingly ruined, but at least the damage will be limited to a single piece. This is cold comfort when confronted with losing a masterpiece, but by comparison, the loss of a single site is immense. Looters are interested only in what they think will fetch a good price, and will throw away, cut through, or literally bulldoze anything that doesn’t appeal to them. Continue reading