A friend asked me what I think about museums exhibiting artwork without provenance. This is what I told her:
My take is that until about 15 years ago the attitude was that museums were doing the world a favor by preserving objects that would otherwise go into the hands of looters or private collectors where they would not be available for study by scholars or enjoyment by the public. It is still a problem – there are many objects in the collections of private owners that are unknown – no one is studying them to even learn about their provenance!
So it is ironic and sad, but at the same time, I think it is good that the history of ownership is being unearthed – it’s part of the history of the object.
I do think some of the claims of modern-day nations (Italy, for example, didn’t even exist as a ‘nation’ until the late 1900s) on cultural heritage objects from antiquity are complicated and bizarre. For example, some of the objects the Italians are claiming from the Getty were actually Greek because the Greeks settled the Italian peninsula in antiquity! So what makes it yours? The fact that it was found on your soil? It would be interesting to look at the legal aspects of property ownership through history (and across cultures) – what’s the difference between inheriting something and buying it?