Growing up I always wanted to be a doctor. No one in my family is a doctor, and even though I was terrified of doctors I still wanted to be one. My parents both have artistic inclinations. My mother is a musician, she study the piano and the flute and my father trained as a choreographer. My mother taught music to school children all her life, but my father eventually moved on to business and now his impressive dance skills only come out during weddings or family events. My mother did try to teach me the piano, but I wasn’t particularly interested. Instead, I’d ask her to play me Vivaldi’s “Winter” for the Four Seasons while I finished my dinner, which to this day remains my go to piece of classical music when I am trying to focus.
My father talked me out of studying medicine, which is quite an uncommon thing for a parent to do. Instead, he was thrilled when I told him I had enrolled into an art history degree. I told him over the phone, and I remember him saying “I think you will love it!” When I signed up for my first art history courses, I didn’t expect to stick with it for longer than a semester. I used to think that, no matter how late, I’d eventually end up in medicine. Before my first art history semester was over, I had already picked my curriculum for the rest of the year, joined the Art History Society and was President of the Photography Club.
I was in my third year when I went to my first provenance training workshop, without knowing what it was or whether it would be useful to me. In the name of being honest, it was a terribly dull semester and I needed to get away, so a workshop seemed like an excellent excuse. Without exaggerating, I returned a different person from my weeklong workshop. Provenance research was all I could think about. I was about to complete my BA in Art History. The curriculum was as traditional as it was predictable and the term provenance research did not come up once. It also never came up in my meeting with the career advisor. When I look back at, it was without a doubt what scored my career path. As much as I enjoyed traditional art history I could not imagine myself committing full time to academia, or working in a gallery, and most certainly I couldn’t see myself becoming a critic, even though being a provenance researcher makes one as critical as humanly possible.
I have now been a provenance researcher for a decade. In this time there are two questions that regularly come up: “What is provenance research?” and “How does one become a provenance researcher?”.
Of course, art crime makes for an attractive subject, be it in newspaper articles or movies. The first James Bond movie Dr No (1962) and was directed by Terence Young features a portrait of the Duke of Wellington, known as The Portrait of the Iron Duke, painted by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. Just the year before, the painting was stolen by Kempton Bunton, a disabled bus driver who was protesting the TV license fee. After stealing the painting from the National Gallery of London, he demanded that the government pay £140,000 to a charity in order to cover the TV license fee for poorer people in exchange for the safe return of the painting. The government, of course, declined.
Fast forward to 2022, and the story was dramatised on screen in the movie The Duke, starring Dame Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent. This is not the first time Mirren takes to the screen to tell a story of stolen art. She previously starred in the critically acclaimed Woman in Gold (2015), which recounts the real story of Maria Altman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and her efforts to recover the paintings of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer painted by Gustave Klimt and seized by the Nazis during WWII. People find stories about stolen art, fakes and forgeries fascinating, but considering a career in the field can seem rather outlandish.
In my years working in the art market, on behalf of international museums and World War II claimants, I have come across many colleagues and young professionals who share the challenges they faced navigating the field, getting the right training and mentors, access to sources and lack of internship opportunities. Provenance research is probably one of the few essential jobs in the art market which is so hard to pin down in that respect. Every gallery, dealer, auction house or museum should have a dedicated provenance research person on their team. Earlier this year, when I launched the Art Market Academy I wanted to do just that. I wanted to create a platform that would offer anyone who took an interest in provenance research, instant resources, content and mentorships. In the past three months we have welcomed students from every continent, of all ages from 16 to 68 years old and helped students with career advice, opportunities and introductions.
This experience reinforced my belief that if training and education on the topic were more accessible there would be more skilled professionals equipped with better tools and boasting the necessary qualifications to carry out risk assessment for art transactions, completing due diligence checks and creating research outlines. To take it a step further, we have now undertaken to translate our existing courses into French, Spanish and Italian, while working on various new courses covering topics from Collections Management, to Conducting Research in the Antiquities Market and Provenance Research taught by WWII claimants, to name only a few.
This is not for the faint-hearted. And while TV does glamorise and almost fetishise the role of the art researcher (or art detective), the actual process requires creative thinking, a superhuman amount of patience, meticulous record-keeping and the ability to sniff out the likely and the unlikely scenarios.
Is this you? Is this your calling? Are you going to let it pass you by for a ‘safer’ career option? Didn’t think so.