LEGAL BRIEFS - A Little Bit of Provenance Goes a Long Way

by Ron McCoy

The last time I visited southern Mexico’s state of Yucatán and its spectacular, ancient Maya ruins, Don McLean was singing about “the day the music died” on the radio, while in the cantinas of Mérida, the colonial-era capital, folks laughed at plans to create a tourist destination at a coastal backwater off to the east called Cancún.  Meanwhile, what drew me to the place was the extensive, widespread evidence of the ancient Maya civilization, which attained its Classical florescence around AD 250-900 and collapsed about a thousand years ago.

Pyramid at Tulum
via Wikimedia Commons

Traces of the Maya, both large and small, extravagant and subtle, were everywhere:  abandoned city complexes with attendant temple pyramids; buildings boasting massive stucco facades displaying supernaturals’ baroque visages; palace walls decorated with brightly-painted murals promoting the established order; monumental carved stelae; outdoor ball-courts which served as theaters for human sacrifice; jade and shell jewelry, obsidian and flint scepters, and a host of other artifacts.

For me, the Maya country became one of those places I wanted to see more than once, if possible.  But the usual – life – took over, so it was only recently I made plans to return to Yucatán.  But it had been forty-six years since my visit and some catching-up was in order if I hoped to really appreciate what I would see.  As I dove into piles of recent literature about the Mayas, I realized this self-help immersion project was both a good and not so good idea.

On the plus side, during the time that passed between my initial visit to Yucatán and the present, scholars have conducted a vast amount of work on the ancient Maya and their material culture.  Over the years, intrepid archaeologists seeking knowledge and determined chicleros scouring the boondocks for gum-producing sapodilla trees peeled away vast swaths of the all-but-impenetrable Mesoamerican forests and jungles, revealing many hitherto “lost” sites.  Clever, exquisitely patient epigraphers pursued their investigatory search for the meanings of the calculiform glyphs Mayas carved into their architecture and painted on the bark paper of their screen-fold books; as a result, something like three-quarters of those symbols can be read.

Not surprisingly, some crucial “truths” about the Mayas widely embraced back in the early 1970s have joined the roster of some of humanity’s quainter, more curious beliefs and conceits.  For example, the notion of ancient Mayas living within an almost pacific culture composed largely of bucolic milpa tenders and blissed-out astronomer-priests (I’ve only slightly exaggerated the picture) has been supplanted by profoundly different interpretations.  In terms of art, research has focused on methods of production, style, materials, and most intensely on the dizzyingly diverse tableaux carved on Maya monuments or painted on Maya walls and pottery.  The iconography is stunningly complex, its meanings still poorly understood.  On the other hand, some propositions are simply ridiculous; “ancient astronauts” spring immediately to mind.  Others, like Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto (2006), telescope history in such a way as to produce just the sort of simplified overstatement and comforting presentism that quickly finds a secure niche in popular culture.

A fair amount of territory separates these extremes: those blissed-out astronomer-priests occupying one end of the continuum, and, just across the way, fantastical space invaders, Noble Savages, and a well-nigh crazed culture in thrall to psychotics and sociopaths.  Somewhere between those poles can be found that enormous spectrum composed of what we call “reality.”  Over the years, we have learned so much more about that reality than many ever believed possible.  In other words, ancient Maya culture and its expressions were far more complex and nuanced than we can ever know.

As I said earlier, my Maya research assignment proved both a good and a not so good idea.  Basic common sense alone would surely put a checkmark in the “good” column.  After all, is it not (generally speaking) better to know more than less?  And is it not also true that the more you learn – really learn – the better positioned you are to realize how little you actually know?  Will not the acquisition of new knowledge spur a desire to acquire additional knowledge?  Well, that’s the theory.  So, I report back: On the not-so-good front, the sheer volume and tonnage of truly solid, provocatively interesting material reflecting scholarly research in the field proved, like the Mesoamerican selva, almost impossibly daunting. (It’s also informative, fascinating, and inspiring.) 

Long ago, an old school thespian told me that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet the bard gave his character Polonius the best lines.  Of these, “to thine own self be true” may be the most memorable.  In that spirit, I knew I wasn’t going to attain anything beyond basic illiteracy when it came to the Mayas’ ingenious glyphs; nor would I approach Copernican heights in comprehending their complex mathematical and astronomical practices.  Having spent much of my professional life immersed in the drawings and paintings of Plains Indian warrior art, I settled on what seemed a reasonable approach: getting a handle on “reading” the culture’s graphic presentation of itself to better appreciate its underpinnings.

Now, of course I know ancient Maya art is, as a body of work, much sought after by collectors both public and private.  The high status afforded truly extraordinary pieces in public exhibitions is matched by the price similar objects command in the private realm.  It is clear that in at least one crucial respect Maya art is exactly like that of every other culture whose material legacy attracts the interest in the tribal art world’s universe of custodians and curators, buyers and sellers.  And that, after a couple of turns around Robin Hood’s proverbial barn, brings us to the subject at hand: the provenance situation. 

In the art world, “provenance” and “provenience” are sometimes used interchangeably.  The words look and sound similar, but they are fundamentally different and by no means synonymous.

Archaeologists (and others) use “provenience” when discussing the “three-dimensional context (including geographical location) of an archaeological find, giving information about its function and date.”[1]  “Provenance” refers to the history of the piece, basically where has it been and when?  So, not to put too fine a point on matters, provenience documents (through persuasive written, photographic or other evidence) where and when an object was found and contextualizes it; provenance tells us where the object has been over time.  Ideally, this means from the time it was created up to and including the present.  However, in the real world, most of us would probably be delighted and reassured knowing as much of its documentable history as can possibly be recreated.

Along these lines, this column recently reported on a notice of intent to repatriate a Sisseton Can Otina (Tree or Forest Dweller) figure under provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA).  The State Historical Society of North Dakota stipulated it had something of a mystery object on its hands, summing up its provenance: “On an unknown date, an unknown number of cultural items were removed from an unknown site in an unknown location.”[2] 

I cite this example as an honest expression of the obvious: aside from being present and (more or less) accounted for (kind of), the Tree Dweller effigy has no history, as in “it just grew like Topsy.”  “When life gives you lemons,” a wise observer of the human scene noted long ago, “make lemonade.”[3]  Which is exactly what the historical society did: lacking any documentable history for the piece, the institution simply made that fact clear.    

Hopefully, I’m not belaboring the point by noting that questions about provenance can seem akin to those you’re asked at the doctor’s office, the ones about your pain with possible answers taking the form of a diagram: a smiley face at one end and a very sad one at the other, with a bunch of expressive mugs between.  Thumbs up, thumbs down, questioning looks, the picture often turns murky and one realizes the importance of seeking the good in the absence of the perfect.  In other words, some solid provenance is always better than none.    

Stela with Queen Ix Mutal Ahaw
photo by: Daderot [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Attenuated provenance is common in the field of tribal art in general, so let’s briefly look at an example from the Maya realm.  San Francisco’s renowned M. H. de Young Memorial Museum houses a stunning seven-and-a-half-foot tall, nearly four-feet wide carved limestone Maya stele depicting “the powerful queen Ix Mutal Ahaw…performing a ritual to contact the gods.”[4]  This spectacular, knock-your-socks-off piece contains glyphs referencing an AD 761 date and imagery of the lady in question festooned in a towering headdress, carrying important ritual paraphernalia, and contending with a writhing serpentine form from which emerges the face of a supernatural.  The museum tells us the stela comes from “Mexico or Guatemala.”[5]

This raises the question of where, exactly, this piece came from, who recovered it, and how did it make its way across the border into the United States?   For the viewer, it is a great pleasure to know this stela exists as part of the canon of world art.  That uplifting feeling is ameliorated by the realization that this piece lacks meaningful context beyond the fact of its existence. This situation prevents us from attaining a better appreciation of the monument; it probably also strips away much of the monument’s meaning.

This gap in our knowledge, which undermines fullness of appreciation, might be expected to raise some warning flags.  After all, when “the expertise (connoisseurship) of the dealer and/or collector, rather than actual provenience (origin) or provenance (history), is the measure of authenticity, then truth is, like beauty in the eye of the beholder.”[6]  You don’t have to be a fortune teller or visionary to conclude following that path is a perilous business.

The artificial, culturally-dictated distinction between “tribal art” and other art continues its ongoing, overdue, and welcome erosion.  As more parochial perspectives filter off from the mainstream, the degree to which pieces formerly marginalized acquire status as objects of interest can be expected to increase.  This should be especially so when such objects arrive on the scene not just with great stories but documentable histories.  And it really makes no difference whether the objects in question came from gallery purchases, auction acquisitions, or were hoicked up Santa Fe’s Canyon Road in a dark green plastic garbage bag clutched by a twitchy runner.

Please note: This column does not offer legal or financial advice.  Anyone requiring such advice should consult a professional in the relevant field.  The author welcomes readers’ comments and suggestions, which may be sent to him at legalbriefs@atada.org

Once you move beyond the realm of tchotchkes decorating a mantlepiece, some sort of documentation for objects in a collection is a good idea.  Otherwise, when the time comes that you are no longer involved in witnessing the denouement, others, lacking essential information about the object, may regard your treasures as, well, tchotchkes or, moving slightly upscale, tools of liquidity.

Click for Endnotes

[1] “Introduction to Archaeology: Glossary,” Archaeological Institute of America (2018), https://www.archaeological.org/education/glossary#p

[2] “Notice of Intent to Repatriate Cultural Items: State Historical Society of North Dakota,” Federal Register (June 14, 2017), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/06/14/2017-12297/notice-of-intent-to-repatriate-cultural-items-state-historical-society-of-north-dakota-bismarck-nd

[3] That was not, as is often thought, businessman’s muse Dale Carnegie but Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), author of the Spanish-American War period essay “A Message to Garcia” (1899) and founder of the Arts and Craft movement’s Roycroft artisan community in eastern New York.  Hubbard and his wife Alice evidently stayed true to this advice: they died, together, aboard the RMS Lusitania when a Geman U-boat torpedoed the British liner off the Irish coast in 1917. “Elbert Hubbard Papers, Manuscript Group 17,” Special Collections and University Archives, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Nov. 5, 2014), 3-4, http://libs0500.library.iup.edu/depts/speccol/All%20Finding%20Aids/Finding%20aids/MG%20or%20Col/MG17Hubbard.pdf

[4] “Inside Our Collections: Rebirth and Renewal,” de Young Museum (July 25, 2018), https://deyoung.famsf.org/inside-our-collections-rebirth-renewal.

[5] Ibid.  For an intriguing account of the stela’s acquisition, see Kathleen Berrin, “Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Acquire Maya Stela: Collaboration with Guatemala and Mexico Sets New Standards for Museums,” PARI [Precolumbian Art Research Institute] Online Publications: Newletter #28 (June 1999), http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/publications/news_archive/28/fine_arts_stela.html

[6] Nancy L. Kelker and Karen O. Bruhns, Faking Ancient Mesoamerica (London: Routledge, 2016), n.p. (Kindle electronic edition).