Friday 19 December 2014

New Thinking on Ownership gaps in NGA

Caught out by the Dancing Shiva scandal, the National Gallery of Australia is starting to take an innovative approach to provenance research on items already in the collection (Michaela Boland, 'National Gallery of Australia blitz on 54 ownership gaps' The Australian December 19, 2014). They will be taking a new look at  the gallery’s Asian collection (some 5000 objects) starting with the South Asian sculptures. As a result the Gallery:
has identified another 54 South Asian sculptures in its collection with gaps in their recent ownership histories, which could indicate they were also stolen. More than $13m in public funds was spent acquiring the antiquities between 1969 and 2011. The collection would be valued at considerably more than $13m now but in light of the federal government’s new guide to Collecting Cultural Material, the pieces have essentially been rendered worthless until a secure chain of ownership can be established.
These are two interesting innovations. The notion of "ownership gaps" seems a useful one to introduce (applicable to the non-mention of certain dealers - Medici/ Symes - in the reported collecting histories of items offered by certain auction houses). The second is the notion that - due to a series of proven abuses of the system - presumed innocence no longer guarantees that an object will retain its assigned value.
Today, the gallery will publish online pictures and acquisition details for the antiquities in question, including revealing for the first time how much was paid for the pieces in question, who owned them and who traded them. This information was historically considered commercial-in-confidence but Dr Vaughan admitted there were few instances of genuine commercial in confidence where public art galleries were concerned. “I think as a public institution we have a duty to be open — it’s public money and transactions of this kind should be out in the open,” he said.  
Again, it seems there is no arguing with that. But we could take it further if we accept that these items are all the common heritage of mankind, so even those in personal collections should be subject to the same ideals of transparency. Of course the usual culprits are dead against all this, almost as if they in reality have something to hide:
The Art Gallery of South Australia has been frustrated by dealers refusing to assist its trail-blazing provenance research but Dr Vaughan said the NGA would no longer deal with dealers, donors or auction houses who refused to be completely frank about the ownership history of new pieces or ones they had previously sold the gallery.
I suggest this is an attitude we all, collectors and observers, should adopt. Boycot the cowboys who buy stuff no-questions-asked and have no paperwork legitimating the objects they've been filling their stockrooms with all these years.

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