The Stories of Art History’s Detectives

Funerary Bust of a Man, Roman (2nd century CE), limestone, 19 7/8 inches x 15 9/16 inches x 6 5/8 inches (image courtesy the San Antonio Museum of Art)

When I’m standing in front of a masterpiece, I like to reflect on all the other people who have looked at it before, from the artist to famed connoisseurs to my friends and teachers and even past versions of myself. So, the next time I go to the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) I will take great joy in thinking about how Walt Whitman was such a fangirl of this ancient Egyptian sculpture that he visited its perky pecs 20 times when it was on display in lower Manhattan. 

I learned this in Lynley J. McAlpine’s recent book, Let Us Now Not Boast of Our Worldly Possessions: Provenance Stories from the San Antonio Museum of Art. The title is a quote from a 1937 letter written by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. A compulsive collector, Hearst bought artworks by the boxcar in Europe and often shipped them directly to storage in a five-story warehouse in the Bronx. A reporter started nosing around, asking to tour the warehouse. Hearst instructed an employee to keep him out, writing that bragging about his treasures during the depths of the Great Depression “would be merely an invitation to some red nut to come around and start something.” SAMA now owns a few of the hundreds of Greek vases that Hearst accumulated. These vases form one of the 19 “artwork biographies” in Let Us Now Not Boast of Our Worldly Possessions, which also packs an overview of provenance research into its 75 engaging pages. 

Statue of Nakhtsaes, Egyptian (c. 2494–2345 BCE), painted limestone, 26 1/8 inches x 11 inches x 16 1/2 inches (image courtesy the San Antonio Museum of Art)

Provenance researchers like McAlpine try to uncover information about who owned artworks. While a piece by a 20th-century artist will often come with enough information from artist and dealer archives to tell a researcher exactly where it has been since leaving the studio, older objects often present much harder puzzles. The provenance researcher must be a detective — reading in multiple languages, consulting known sources and locating new ones, and figuring out alternative ways to get at information that auction houses, museums, private collectors, and other major participants in the trade are still all too often unwilling to disclose. 

McAlpine, writing for a general audience, focuses on intriguing details rather than archival minutiae. We hear, for instance, about the antiquities purchased by Gilbert M. Denman, one of SAMA’s founding trustees. He bought them to round out the museum’s collections, but he hung on to them for a while before he donated them, so they could class up his palatial apartment, one of the social centers of San Antonio. Of course, no matter how Texas-scaled the apartment, its owner faces certain limitations compared to the aristocratic English Grand Tour collectors that Denman emulated. He bought a seven-foot-tall portrait of Marcus Aurelius owned in the 18th century by the First Marquess of Lansdowne, who displayed it in a special statue gallery. The emperor took up a markedly less glamorous position in the lobby of Denman’s apartment building when he couldn’t fit up the stairs. McAlpine includes a 1970s photograph of Marcus Aurelius leaning on his staff and shooting an unfocused gaze at the steps, like a tipsy party guest gathering strength before the final flight. 

Cosmetic Dish in the Form of an Oryx, Egyptian (c. 1550–1069 BCE), steatite, 3 inches x 5 1/4 inches x 1 1/4 inches (image courtesy the San Antonio Museum of Art archives)

The New York City dealer Mathias Komor took advantage of Denman’s aristocratic yearnings, telling him that a torso of Aphrodite had previously been in the collection of the Earl of Sandwich. But recent research in the Sandwich family archives showed that the torso belonged not to the 18th-century Grand Tourist earl, but instead to a much later one, nearly a contemporary of Denman’s. This reevaluation of the provenance history also prompted a reconsideration of authenticity; the torso is now considered modern.

Besides raising the issue of forgery, provenance research can also send a stolen artwork back home. Today, many museums and dealers consider themselves under an obligation to research the provenance of any artwork they suspect was in continental Europe between 1933 and 1945, to ensure that it was not looted from Jewish owners. While Nazi-era research is still a key area, museums are increasingly aware of other provenance issues, including looted antiquities, stolen sacred art, and artifacts removed from countries during conflict or under colonialism.

SAMA is one of a growing number of American museums to hire in-house provenance researchers, whether permanently or for temporary positions. The Getty, Smithsonian, Philadelphia Museum of Art, MoMA, Denver Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins, Emory’s Carlos Museum, Newfields, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts have or have had provenance researchers on staff. 

These hires often come when museums face claims from source communities. But conceiving of provenance research solely as a defensive move misses what McAlpine clearly demonstrates: provenance stories can increase our appreciation of an artwork, adding to visitors’ excitement and interest. The success of books and movies like Edmund de Waal’s bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) or the 2015 film starring Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold, has already demonstrated audiences’ eagerness for these stories. Surprisingly, few museums have tried to bring their provenance stories to the public (one exception is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ provenance researcher, Victoria Reed). 

Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the hallway of Gilbert M. Denman’s apartment building (image courtesy the San Antonio Museum of Art archives)

This Greek vase is a prime example of how ownership history can sometimes be far more interesting than the object itself. I wrote my dissertation on Greek vases, but even I have to say that this one is a somewhat homely example of the genre — one only a collector could love. But what collectors! The vase was brought home by the English Romantic poet Samuel Rogers, who traveled with Lord Byron until they quarreled about Byron’s inability to get up in time for their scheduled departures. (We’ve all had, or been, that friend.) The vase was passed down through Rogers’s family, appearing in a 1934 portrait of some of his descendants posed with their proudest possessions: the vase and their pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg (nickname: Jongy), whom they had purchased at Harrods. 

The competition for most colorful character chronicled in the book is fierce, but my vote goes to the fin-de-siècle beauty Martine-Marie-Pol de Béhague, who used her vast inheritance to make near-daily purchases of art and antiquities while traveling the world in her steam yacht Le Nirvana. When her heirs auctioned off her collections in 1987, an Italian antiquities dealer named Giacomo Medici purchased two vase fragments. At the auction’s end, Medici encountered a SAMA curator who was disappointed he had not been able to purchase them for the museum. Medici dropped them into the curator’s hands as a gift. 

Jar (amphora) with Herakles, Deianeira and Nessos, Greek (c. 540–30 BCE), terracotta, black-figure technique, 15 3/4 inches tall; max. diameter (body): 10 9/16 inches (image courtesy the San Antonio Museum of Art archives)

Medici probably hoped SAMA would buy other pieces from him. Fortunately, they did not, since Medici was shortly afterward revealed to be a prolific dealer in looted antiquities. They didn’t escape entirely, though. In February 2023, SAMA had to repatriate a head of Hadrian. Medici had smuggled it out of Italy and the now equally notorious Robin Symes provided it with fake provenance. McAlpine does not mention this, or the museum’s return of Greek pottery in 2021. 

On the other hand, McAlpine does point out the trouble spots in other pieces. For example, she writes that the museum’s ancient tomb relief from the city of Palmyra, Syria, came from a collector known to have purchased similar artifacts from the dealer Azeez Khayat, who admitted to bribing officials to smuggle them out of what was then the Ottoman Empire. The museum’s relief came with too little provenance information to determine if Khayat had ever touched it, but McAlpine should be commended for raising the possibility of his involvement. (Now, if only the museum’s website could be edited to include this important information!)

I recommend this deeply researched, yet unfailingly engaging, book to anyone, from students to museum visitors to scholars who wants to learn more about where the art in our museums came from — and who want to have a good time while learning.

Let Us Now Not Boast of Our Worldly Possessions: Provenance Stories from the San Antonio Museum of Art by Lynley J. McAlpine is published by the San Antonio Museum of Art and is available at the museum or online.

Maria Lewis

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