Purchasing a Major Work of Art for the Collection – part VI

The search for an object to purchase in honor of the soon-to-be-retired Curator of Asian Art began more than eight months before I arrived at the Brooklyn Museum, so I’m a little foggy on all the details of the earliest phases, but basically, the Curator and her supporters started contacting all the most respected dealers and auction houses they knew to see if they had anything really special available that might suit our purposes. Of course, no one said no. The local dealers said, “come on over, I have some wonderful things to show you.” The dealers in other countries sent images of their best holdings. The team was shown a wonderful array of objects, but as in any shopping experience, there were lots of pieces that weren’t quite right for the collection, some wonderful things we couldn’t afford, and a fair number of things that weren’t up to par.

Had we made these inquiries only fifteen years ago, we would have been offered a much richer variety of objects. Everybody knows that the supply of Asian antiquities has largely dried up, and dealers have been very hard pressed to find good material. That is, of course, kind of a good thing: it means that not as much material is being looted and/or exported illegally from Asia. And it means that a lot of the best material has already made its way into museum collections, where it is shared with the general public. But it also means that if one wants to buy something beautiful, one has to look a lot harder, and one has to sift through more B-level objects than one used to. And the A-level things are getting more expensive.

Shopping for antiquities is always a bit of a minefield, with issues of authenticity and provenance at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Nowadays, prices for Asian art are high enough that it’s worth it for skilled craftsmen to take the time to make good facsimiles. Certain types of Asian art have been forged for centuries. There are a lot of fakes out there. Scientific testing is a relatively good way to get answers about an object’s age, and the best dealers will have things tested before they offer them to their clients. Testing is most reliable for ceramics and some bronzes. But certain materials, most notably stone, are very difficult to test for age (one can analyze the surface of stone for patterns of wear and patination, but it’s an inexact science), and even testable objects can be faked, by creating a mostly new object using old materials.

People who spend a lot of time looking at specific types of Asian art develop a laundry list of telltale signs of forgery, as well as a strong sense of what an authentic object should look like. But the visual cues can be misleading, especially since the best forgers have been looking, too. Not everyone has the same laundry list, so there can be lots of debate, especially surrounding flashy new “finds.” (Some of this debate is clearly a matter of sour grapes: people who missed out on the find saying that it can’t possibly be real.) I’ve seen objects that I strongly suspected were forgeries at some of the best museums and galleries in the world, but I am well aware that my opinion of what is “fake looking” and what isn’t is just that: an opinion. Sometimes an object that looks slightly wrong is simply the authentic product of a provincial workshop or a quirky artist.

The other concern nowadays is provenance, or where the object has been. This is an issue that has received a lot of press lately, but the truth is that the vast majority of museums stepped up their level of caution long before the news coverage began. Certainly, most American museums once participated in phases of happy-go-lucky acquisitiveness, and they once subscribed to imperialist notions that Western collectors were “rescuing” artifacts from developing countries. They didn’t realize that they were doing something that future generations would consider inappropriate; they simply thought that they were bringing great art to the masses (and of course, they were…). But those days have been over for quite a while. Today, museums know that they must serve as models of good collecting behavior: if there’s nothing clean on the market, then you don’t buy anything, even if it would be fun to tout a new acquisition.

The very best way to determine that an object has not been stolen, looted, or removed illegally from its country of origin is to examine its history of ownership. For European and American paintings, that history can often be traced back to the moment when the artist made the painting. For antiquities and non-Western art of all types, the history is never that complete. The very best way to acquire an antiquity is to excavate it scientifically in a government-authorized dig. This is how many of the older Western museums acquired great collections of Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern art. But today, governments rarely allow removal of excavated artifacts to another country, and properly excavated materials almost never enter the market.

As much as it pains me to admit it, most antiquities that have entered the market (ever!) were unscientifically removed from the ground or from ruins, with no documentation of a find site or of the other objects that may have accompanied them. The responsible collector’s role today is to discourage further looting by refusing to buy anything that appears to have left its country of origin in recent years. The longer an object has been out of the ground, the better. Most countries passed laws in the early 1970s that made it illegal to export any object that was more than 100 years old. Museums aim to acquire objects that were exported before the laws were passed.

For museums, the ideal objects on the market are those that we know have been residing in a living-room or gallery since the mid-20th century or earlier. Ideally, one can get written documentation of the object’s recent history: the original bill of sale, maybe, or an old exhibition catalog with an image of the piece. Unfortunately for museums, this sort of documentation adds enormously to an object’s monetary value, and sometimes one sees rather ugly works of art selling for high prices because they have really good provenance. But aside from offering the collector a rare opportunity to acquire an antiquity without too great a dose of guilt, good provenance also offers a degree of reassurance about the authenticity of the object, because people weren’t making as many forgeries in the early 20th century as they are today (they were making some, but often not very well).

So all of this brings up the question of the provenance of our new Shiva. We were definitely looking for an object with an unimpeachable history of ownership, and the Shiva image satisfied our requirements. I can’t tell you the precise details, because some of the people involved are still living and have asked to remain anonymous. But suffice it to say that Brooklyn’s Shiva has provenance back to the mid-1960s, when a very well known Asian art collector purchased the piece from a reputable New York dealer. The bronze was in his collection for a short time, and then he gave it to a friend and colleague, who kept it in her apartment for more than 30 years before a prominent dealer finally talked her into selling it to the Brooklyn Museum.