Artistic work War Bride

Parties, Marriage, and Provenance

Things said infrequently to the Curator of Fine Arts: “We need to talk about marriage.” As we begin Art Tracks, one of the first tasks is identifying each person, or party, who was involved in the transfer, movement, and custody of an artwork before it came to Carnegie Museum of Art.

Then we have to build a timeline of each party’s movements over their lifetime, and associate a distinct location identifier for each movement. Currently, we’re using Geonames as our authority, though the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN) just became linked-open-data. Using an authority helps us be explicit that we’re talking about the Paris in France, and not Paris, Ontario, Paris, Texas, or Paris, Togo.

In our database, each person or organization receives a party file, which the museum uses for donation records, creator records, research files, and now, provenance data.

However, in identifying the parties, we came across works listed as being purchased by “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe,” then passing to “Mrs. John Doe (aka Jane Doe)” after his death.

Artwork as the joint property of a married couple raised a few questions:

  • Do we identify “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe,” the married couple, as an organization or a person?
  • Do we identify the marriage at all? Could we just say that “John Doe” and “Jane Doe” both owned this during this time?
  • Does the transfer of artwork from a married couple to one party of the marriage really constitute a transfer of custody, since the individual had already “owned” it as part of being married?

When Art Tracks developer David Newbury and I went to talk to Lulu Lippincott, Curator of Fine Arts, about marriage, she pointed out that joint property ownership was a very modern concept.

I have the perspective of a 21st century married person, with the assumption that in a marriage property is shared evenly, barring legal structures. So spotting “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe” in a provenance record says, to my modern mind, “This is joint property.”

Lulu pointed out that until the latter half of the 20th century, that wasn’t true. The property of Mr. and Mrs. was really the property of the husband, and his alone to bequeath, sell, or give.

Clarence Holbrook Carter, War Bride, 1940. Carnegie Museum of Art, Richard M. Scaife American Painting Fund and Paintings Acquisition Fund.

What this can mask is a wife’s influence on collecting activities. Women may also have negotiated prices with galleries, commissioned artists, held salons, and explicitly told husbands what to buy, but the work would have been assumed to be his, and so the record would imply that he was a keen connoisseur.

David also explained that computers have no concept of “marriage.” Humans have a complex social, historical, and political context for what “marriage” is, and what it means for property. We have to find a way to model a marriage for the computer.

For now, we’re taking the following approach:

  • Mr. and Mrs. John Doe will become an organization, because it reflects a multi-party entity. Person implies a singular party, and of course a marriage is made of two parties. The marriage organization will have its own timeline, movements, and location.
  • The marriage organization will have two associated person records: John Doe and Jane Doe. John and Jane will have individual timelines, movements, and locations.
  • Since organizations are concepts, and concepts cannot be born or die, we’ll use “Commencement” as the day the marriage happened, and “Completed On” date will correspond to the death of one of the partners, or the date of divorce or annulment.

We debated about whether the transfer of an artwork to a spouse after death is considered an actual transfer of ownership, and ultimately we decided to consider it a unique transfer because of the transformational state of marriage.

When people marry, they become part of a legal entity. When a spouse dies, the legal entity of the married couple no longer exists. The widow is now a unique party, with their own property and property rights. Therefore, the transition from married to widow, and the explicit passing of property to the surviving spouse has persuaded us to call this a unique change of ownership, and thus, a provenance event that should be captured.

This hasn’t been the most entertaining or uplifting discussion we’ve had at CMOA, but it highlights some of the challenges of modeling human concepts to the computer, and giving meaning to data so that it reflects reality. It also has challenged us to dig deeper into the people of our provenance parties, and given us a new appreciation of the complexities of life and how it impacts an artwork’s history.