Meet Mason, Provenance Detective and Renaissance Man

Mason Koelm chose to attend the University of Iowa for its promise of a cross-disciplinary experience. As he puts it, “Nowhere else offered the diversity of programs that I wanted to explore.”

For Koelm, the most interesting aspect of academia is the opportunity to connect various fields, an ethos reflected in the broad range of extracurricular activities he’s engaged with over his lifetime. He has expertise—though he admits to being out of practice—in six musical instruments, not counting a voice refined by classical training in opera. Add to that fencing club, mock trial, academic decathlon and quiz bowl, as well as several event hosting duties at the UI. Koelm is a bona fide Renaissance man. It would come as no surprise if he were one day said to be preparing for space travel.

Until then, Koelm continues to amaze in his earthly endeavors. This year, his cross disciplinary undergraduate journey at the University of Iowa came to a fitting close: a B.A. in International Relations, a B.S. in Criminology, Law, and Justice, and a minor in Anthropology. There’s also a certificate in museum studies to account for, a course of study that culminated in his eight-month tenure as Curatorial Assistant for Provenance Research at the Stanley Museum of Art.

Koelm’s passion for museums traces back to his childhood. “I grew up in Cedar Rapids, but I’m originally from St. Louis and visited the latter frequently growing up,” he says. “Visiting the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, and especially the St. Louis Zoo gave me a huge appreciation of these institutions and their educational mission. Whenever I go on vacation, visiting museums, especially of local history, is a priority for me.”

Students pursuing museum studies certificates at the UI are encouraged to intern at a museum or other cultural institution with significant collections. During Koelm’s first internship he worked with a team putting together a tribal summit funded by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Grant. His duties included investigating over 30,000 unassociated funerary objects found at over one hundred archaeological sites across the state of Iowa. “I determined whether such sites contained mortuary features and whether the objects may have been found near or in these features,” he elaborates. His work is currently featured in the Office of the Vice President for Research’s Dare to Discover Campaign.

At the Stanley, Koelm worked closely with Curator of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Cory Gundlach, to identify the origins of objects in the African Art collection. It could be said that this work was destined. “My freshman year, I took Dr. Chris Roy’s Arts of Africa class as an elective because I knew next to nothing about the topic and wanted to learn more,” he says. “While I was by no means an expert in African Art after taking the class, the broader lessons of art as constantly evolving and the appreciation of other cultures stuck with me.”

Hear Koelm explain provenance research and you’d think he’s been doing it for decades. “Provenance research is like detective work in many ways,” he says. “I look for potential leads: similar objects, correspondence from the dealer in institutional files, publications that cite the item, exhibition catalogues, journals, or anything that could possibly shed light on the earlier ownership or whereabouts of the object.” One case study he highlights is the Benin Hip Mask, or uhunmwun-ekue, and it quickly becomes clear why Koelm is a sought-after event host—he is a riveting storyteller. “I was looking at about a half-dozen other similar objects, noting any similarities I could in the ornamentation, dimensions, and style of the objects,” he teases. What follows ought to be written into the next Indiana Jones script: “I found a near exact match at the Penn Museum, and found that it was sold by a dealer named William Ockleford Oldman. His sale and collection records happen to be available on the Smithsonian Institute’s Open Access. Looking through them, there were two masks with the same description collected and sold at the same time to the Penn Museum, with one of them matching the dealer number for the piece I had noticed in their online collection. After exchanging emails with the keeper of African Arts at the Penn Museum, I found that the other Oldman mask was not ours. I thought I had a solid lead and had to consult dozens of resources just to get there. But such an experience is not a complete loss: I had established a connection with another museum professional, become more familiar with online archives and collections, and definitively disproved a lead, saving time for myself and other researchers in the future.”

Koelm presented his research to museum staff. In addition to reporting on the nuances of his work, Koelm, who also studied the laws of African countries represented in the Stanley’s collection, outlined some best practices when a work is determined to require repatriation. One example, he points out, is the return of the Euphronios Krater to Italy by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “As an industry, I see museums moving to further global cooperation. Restoring ownership claims is a symbolic restitution, and the Krater remained on display at the Met for over a year, in addition to several long-term loans being extended to the Met for their return of other Italian objects. [Such] cooperative restoration could serve as a model by which institutions can right historic wrongs, destroy colonial power structures, and still bring a piece of the world to a smaller community.”

What’s next for already multi-degreed Mason Koelm? His first semester at the University of Iowa College of Law this fall. “I’m excited to be sticking around so I can see the opening of the new art museum,” he says. His vision for a future career? “There are some fantastic lawyers out there who prosecute art traffickers and facilitate repatriations,” he notes. “On the other side, I could be a private investigator or provenance researcher, continuing my work, and hopefully traveling in a world sans pandemic.”

[From the Fall 2021 Stanley Museum of Art Magazine.]

Photo by Elizabeth Wallace