Provenance case study: Mirr

last edited on Mon. February 13 2017

The following case study illustrates the type of research Max Koss conducted into the Smart Museum’s collection of modern art over the course of the 2015–2016 Association of Art Museum Directors/Samuel H. Kress Foundation Provenance Research Fellowship.

This kind of ongoing provenance research done by emerging scholars, even when results are inconclusive, remains a crucial part of the Museum’s educational mission.

By Max Koss
PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and 2015–2016 Samuel H. Kress Foundation Provenance Research Fellow

The information on file at the Smart Museum for this sculpture by Hans Arp states that it was “one of an edition of five,” from 1936. We knew, too, that the donors—the work is part of the Joel Starrels, Jr. Memorial Collection—had bought the work from Richard Feigen Gallery in Chicago.

In 2011, Kai Fischer, preparing a critical survey of Arp’s sculptures, contacted the Smart Museum to request information about the piece, at which point our then senior curator, Richard A. Born, reached out to Mrs. Alsdorf, a Chicago collector and life member of the museum’s Board of Governors. She recalled having owned that same sculpture at an earlier stage. This 2011 email exchange was the last time the sculpture was the object of research.

When I began my research on it in 2015, I went straight to Kai Fischer’s catalogue raisonné of Arp’s sculptures, which had appeared in the meantime. It contains a near perfect provenance for the work that we had not been aware of until that moment.

Apparently, the Starrels bought the work on August 12, 1963 from Richard Feigen Gallery. The gallery itself bought it only two weeks prior, on July 31, 1963, from J. W. Alsdorf. The Alsdorfs bought it in 1957 from Peridot Gallery in New York, which in turn had received the work from Georges Rudier, who had cast the work.

Fischer further writes that is was an illegitimately made cast that was only authorized post-hoc by his spouse Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach. He quotes a letter from her to Mrs. Alsdorf dated February 9, 1958: “So I have authorized with Arp’s consent your bronze as no. 1A, as it is certainly no. 2, but as we have ignored this, in my catalog nos. 2 and 3 have already other owners […]. Arp of course is rather troubled to know that Rudier has done illegal casts […].”

For me, this is very useful information, as the Starrels are among the founding donors to the Smart Museum, and many objects on my list of works to research are from their gift. Their gift, however, was made in a time when having a strong paper trail for an object of modern and contemporary art was not necessarily a priority.

To find an indication of existing documentation is therefore a thrilling discovery.