With a nose honed to the shady and an eye tuned to the purloined, Victoria Sears-Goldman has been hired by the Cleveland Museum of Art to ensure that paintings in its collections weren't wrongfully acquired. She'll be here for the next seven months, off and on, digging through obscure catalogues and archives. The Cleveland Museum of Art, alongwith dozens of other institutions, have been caught up in "provenance" scandals in recent years, wherein countries come knocking on the door claiming certain objects were stolen in the past or obtained through less than ethical intermediaries. Scene caught up with VSG to chat about what a "provenance researcher" actually does...and gnocchi.
Sam Allard: So were you one of those freaky smart kids who wanted to be an art historian since age four or something?
Victoria Sears-Goldman: Actually, ever since I was little, I wanted to be a detective. But, you know, that wasn't really a career I thought I could pursue.
Of course not.
So I thought I would go the art history academic route, but I realized that teaching just wasn't for me. I knew about provenance research but I had never done it before. And then for my dissertation I was working on a group of drawings by Tiepelo and I noticed that a lot of the drawings had gaps in their ownership histories.
Sorry, Piepelo? Could you spell that?
Tiepolo T-I-E-P-O-L-O. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. He's an 18th century Venetian artist and his group of drawings were of the character Punchinello. That's the Italian Ccommedia dell'arte character with the tall hat and the big nose who wears all white. And it was a really interesting group of drawings. They depict Punchinello at Carnival in Verona and they show him eating a lot of gnocchi. And he eats too much gnocchi and some of the drawings show him...pooping.
And pooping led you to Cleveland?
Well, I got my Ph.D. last January and since then, I've been working some freelance slash consulting, and did some work with a couple law firms that do art law, some nonprofits that deal with art that was looted during WWII, that type of thing. Then this Cleveland position came along, and I'm from Cleveland originally actually.
Get out! Whereabouts?
I went to Orange.
The deep Southeast, eh?
Well, I started out in Shaker for elementary school, and then we moved farther out.
So this is a real homecoming for you.
Well I wasn't able to move back to Cleveland, but I had spoken to the Art Museum, and given the nature of the research, it's something that I can do sort of back and forth between New York and Cleveland. And it worked out really well. So, you know, I get to stay with my parents.
How often will you be in town?
I plan on coming to Cleveland probably once a month.
And what exactly will you be doing? Give me the nitty-gritty.
Basically, I'll be working with the American and European collections and I'm looking to fill in gaps in their ownership histories. Some of the research—and this is what I would do largely when I'm in Cleveland—involves looking through museum files, just to make sure I'm aware of all the information that they have. I look at various archives, some online research, and a lot of the books and auction catalogues and that sort of thing, using a bunch of different types of sources to...it's kind of like art detective work.
Now is this a pretty recent discipline?
Relatively. I mean, it's always been around. If you look at exhibition catalogues from way back, they'll list the paintings or sculptures and what collections they'd been in previously. But for the stuff I work in—and my specialty is not with antiquities—especially for works that have potential WWII issues, it's definitely a more recent development, maybe in the past 10 or 15 years. It's something that people have been aware of since the end of the war, and now museums look at their collections or heirs of Holocaust victims come forward with claims relating to art that was looted from their family. I would say it's definitely a growing field with increased interest.
Philosophically, is it like a "win" for you if you uncover wrongful ownership? Wouldn't that be awkward to approach museum folks and tell them they had to return something?
You know, I guess it is, but I think that ultimately museums want to do the right thing morally and returning the painting or having some type of agreement or settlement, that should be looked upon as a win for everybody.
Do the Cleveland Art Museum execs strike you as a moral bunch?
Just sort of a joke question here.
Well, they've hired someone—me—to look into provenance of objects in the collection, which shows that they are concerned with due diligence and doing the right thing. They wouldn't have hired a provenance researcher if this wasn't important to them.
Very diplomatic. Anything you're hot to pursue in Cleveland's collections?
I can't really go into that in detail, but one thing I can say is that the end goal of this position is to publish the results of what I find online. But I can tell you that my general message is to look for certain...there's this list of so-called "Red Flag' names compiled at the end of the war of sketchy dealers in Europe. And if you were to come across those names in a provenance, that would definitely warrant further investigation.
Out of curiosity, any inspirational books that led you to detective work or art?
I guess I'm sort of zeroing in on "From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler."
I definitely read that. I was just going to mention that. I always read a lot of non-art, true crime books about serial killers and stuff.
And switching gears, where would you eat gnocchi in Cleveland?
I'm not really like a trendy person, so I don't usually check out the latest hot spots or whatever. I'm kind of boring.
This is so embarrassing.