Provenance and Restitution have become two of the most urgent and frequently cited terms in the global art market, in museology, and in cultural politics more generally. The two terms are in some ways interconnected since claims for the restitution of cultural objects — whether from former imperial nations, from museums, from private collectors, or from other art market participants — invariably require some form of provenance research in order to confirm the ownership history and thus the legal status of the objects in question.
Such scrutiny has long been of critical importance when applied to so-called ‘Holocaust Assets’ — works seized by the Nazis in the Second World War. More recently, following the Black Lives Matter movement that triggered a deeper interrogation of the colonial past, research has been informally extended to encompass a broader range of objects in both the public and private realms. While provenance research does not set out to establish the authenticity of a work of art, the discovery of a complete and documented ownership history can often contribute to a work’s authenticity and thus its historical and market value.
Geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East have also brought unprecedented quantities of illicit antiquities on to the global art market in recent decades, many of which are now subject to more rigorous legal and ethical scrutiny than ever before. Similarly, the continued looting of objects from ancient sites in South East Asia has reinforced the importance of a clear understanding of the concepts of Provenance and Restitution.
The course will be split into two separate components over two weeks. Each week will comprise two 1.5hr sessions held over two days.
By the end of the course, students will:
- Be familiar with the critical importance of Provenance Research in securing the ownership history of high-value assets on the international art market, together with the implications of failing to do so.
- Have gained insights into the range of academic disciplines and methodologies used in Provenance Research and how certain art market categories present specific challenges for researchers.
- Have a clear understanding of four terms commonly used in cultural object debates, namely: Restitution; Repatriation; Return, and Reunification and how these are often used interchangeably but should be considered more selectively when discussing the legal, ethical, moral, or aesthetic implications of particular object categories.
- Understand the contrasting issues and international legal instruments governing the debates over, for example, the Parthenon Marbles, the Benin bronzes, the Maqdala Treasure, human remains, Holocaust Assets, and so on.
Dr Thomas Flynn
Dr Tom Flynn is a graduate of the University of Sussex and the Royal College of Art, completing his doctorate at the University of Sussex in 1998. From 1998-2000 Tom was Henry Moore Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, organising an international exhibition on Rodin’s connections with the United Kingdom.
A former journalist at The Art Newspaper, his writing has appeared in numerous international art market publications. He has held board positions with art price data company Invaluable and the contemporary print retailer Eyestorm. He has published widely on the global art market, contemporary sculpture, museology, and art and design history and is an accredited lecturer with The Arts Society.
He was Senior Lecturer at Kingston College of Art from 2010-2017, directing the RICS-Accredited MA in Art Appraisal (Professional Practice) and has taught at Sussex University; IESA (Paris and London); and Richmond, the American University in London.
In 2017 he co-founded with Angelina Giovani the art provenance research agency Flynn & Giovani (FlynnGiovani.com), of which he is non-Executive director.
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Week 1. Session 1 (4 April): How important is an object’s ownership history and why?
The first session, devoted to Provenance, will define what is meant by ‘provenance’ when discussing cultural objects and why a work’s ownership history can affect its market value and legal status. The session will explore the importance of securing an object’s past ownership as part of a wider process of Due Diligence, emphasising the potential commercial benefits that may accrue from successful research, as well as the negative implications, both commercially and in terms of reputational risk, of failing to do so. The session will explain some contrasting outcomes with the use of real-world examples.
Week 1. Session 2 (6 April): How is provenance research conducted and what skills are required?
What does Provenance Research involve? What skills, knowledge, or expertise is required in researching the ownership history of a work of art? This session offers some insights into the research methodologies used by provenance researchers, focusing on the available public resources such as libraries and archives, both offline and online, as well as provenance indexes, price databases, dealer catalogues, etc. How important is the verso of a painting? What is the status of the artist’s catalogue raisonné in the research process? How should a provenance record be presented in auction catalogues and catalogues raisonnés? How might the Blockchain and other technological innovations improve approaches to provenance? This session concludes with a takeaway exercise in which students are given an image of a work of art and invited to compose a short proposal for how the provenance research might progress. The outcomes can be discussed briefly at the first of the following week’s session on Restitution.
Week 2. Session 1 (11 April): Defining terms. What do we mean by Restitution, Repatriation and Return and how do they differ?
Following a brief discussion of the previous week’s provenance exercise, the second week focuses on Restitution of cultural objects and will be split into two sessions. The first session will offer a more nuanced definition of the four main terms frequently used in the debates over cultural objects:
- Return (a general overarching term covering the relocation of an object from its current location to its original location, source community or nation)
- Restitution (implies an attempt at righting a historical wrong, and thus also implies a sense of permanence, such as the restitution of a Holocaust object to its rightful owner)
- Repatriation (suggests a return to a specific country or locale, although not necessarily permanently, but often only for a defined loan period)
- Reunification (the reuniting of the previously separated components of an aesthetic programme, without which it would lose a significant part of its meaning, such as the Parthenon Marbles)
Week 2. Session 2 (13 April): Contrasting approaches to Restitution: Legal, Ethical and Aesthetic considerations
This final session will focus on the four main categories of object that are subject to questions of return, whether permanent or temporary, and the legal, ethical, aesthetic and institutional frameworks within which their status is negotiated. These might be summarised as:
- Cultural Objects acquired by Western museums during the imperial era, such as, for example, the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. What is the current status of these debates and are attitudes changing?
- Holocaust Assets: works of art expropriated by the Nazis during the Second World War and the impact (or otherwise) of the ‘Washington Principles’ and ‘Terezin Declaration’ —instruments aimed at encouraging museums to conduct provenance research into their collections.
- Antiquities looted from war zones and cultural heritage sites before entering the art market and often thereafter into private or museum collections.
- Sacred Objects (such as human remains taken from previously subjugated nations, communities and other ethnic groups), which have invited a more specific approach to restitution, one governed by ethical principles and the concern for the sanctity of human remains. To what extent have the various international conventions on the movement of cultural objects had an impact in both stemming the trade and encouraging best practice among museums and art market participants? How can art market practitioners protect themselves to ensure best practice when dealing with high value cultural assets? The session concludes with a summary of the course outcomes and suggests some resources for further research and a select bibliography.
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