Until recently, provenance research was the province of art scholars dealing primarily with issues of attribution and authenticity. But recent legal claims by heirs of Holocaust victims whose art works were looted or otherwise misappropriated by the Nazis, and claims by foreign “source” countries for objects they believe were exported in violation of patrimony or export laws, have raised awareness of the need for provenance research in regard to due diligence in acquiring works of art. Provenance research is often painstaking and not easy to do, and not every work has a discoverable provenance.

The word provenance derives from the French provenire meaning “to originate”. Although the term is sometimes used synonymously with “provenience,” the latter is an archaeological term referring to an artifact’s excavation site or findspot. The provenance of a work of art is a historical record of its ownership, although a work’s provenance comprehends far more than its pedigree. The provenance is also an account of changing artistic tastes and collecting priorities, a record of social and political alliances, and an indicator of economic and market conditions influencing the sale or transfer of the work of art. An ideal provenance history would provide a documentary record of owners’ names; dates of ownership, and means of transference, ie. inheritance, or sale through a dealer or auction; and locations where the work was kept, from the time of its creation by the artist until the present day. Unfortunately, such complete, unbroken records of ownership are rare, and most works of art contain gaps in provenance.

Why is Provenance Research Important?:

For Authenticity: Provenance can bolster claims of a work’s authenticity. Inventory records of an object’s presence in a particular collection or in the artist’s purported workshop provide strong evidence of a work’s authenticity. Art forgers, however, often falsify information establishing the provenance of a work of art— forging receipts of sale, ownership marks, dealers’ records, exhibition labels, and collectors’ stamps. For this reason, provenance history is seldom accepted as the sole proof of authenticity for a work of art. For Valuation: As a factor in establishing authenticity, a complete ownership history adds value to a work of art. Similarly, a distinguished provenance, recording the work in the collection of a prominent owner or collection, may have a positive impact on the work’s value. Conversely, the absence of a provenance record may raise questions not only about the legal title, but about the attribution or authenticity of a work, particularly in the case of an artist whose life and work are well documented. For Ownership: An established provenance can help document proof of ownership if legal title is contested. Transaction records and other proofs of sale or transfer of ownership may help determine the legitimacy of a sale or provide a defense in repatriation claims. In some cases, the presence of a “red flagged name” in the provenance may indicate that an artwork was stolen, subjected to a forced sale, or otherwise misappropriated during the Nazi era, thus warranting further research. See the Art Law and Cultural Property section of IFAR’s Website for examples of legal cases where provenance, or lack thereof, was a factor. Provenance Research: Getting Started Provenance research can be challenging and varies with the artist, the period in which a work was executed, and the availability of surviving documentation on the interim collectors. In constructing the ownership history of a work of art, researchers consult archival materials including inventory records, correspondence, contracts, and sale receipts. Exhibition and sale catalogues are also very useful, and accessible, resources in conducting provenance research. A careful examination of the object itself is also invaluable— exhibition labels, inscriptions or stamps, and other marks from previous collectors, dealers, or auction houses are useful tools for determining ownership history. Often they provide the best clues to the work’s provenance. But, as noted above, forgers are notorious for creating false documents, and one must exercise caution when acquiring works of art. In many cases, particularly works of art produced before the 20th century, it may be impossible to reconstruct the complete ownership history of a work of art. Many archives have suffered damage or dispersal through wars or natural disasters, and documentary materials are often lost or missing. Moreover, private owners may not have saved purchase records over the years, particularly for works of lesser monetary value; and dealers and galleries may no longer be in business. Even where such documents exist, it can be difficult for the researcher to obtain access to them. However, public attention to the importance of provenance research of art looted during World War II, has led to the development of useful resources for establishing ownership history for a work of art. A good place to begin your research is by consulting a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work. A catalogue raisonné is a detailed compilation of an artist’s work and often includes some provenance information, exhibition history, and other identifying features of the work such as dimensions, inscriptions and condition. To discover whether a catalogue raisonné for a specific artist exists, you can conduct a search of IFAR’s Catalogue Raisonné Database on this Website. If the work of art was produced from the 16th- early 20th century, or by a less prominent artist, an excellent resource is the Getty Provenance Index, a series of searchable databases of Archival Documents, Sale Catalogues, and works in Public Collections. Art libraries including the Frick Art Reference Library, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have amassed dealers’ records, auction catalogues and exhibition catalogues which help researchers reconstruct the ownership history of a particular work of art. Both the Witt Library and the Frick Art Reference Library contain extensive photo archives which can be useful in identifying later alterations to a work’s appearance, documenting if it has been altered, restored or cut down at some point in its history. This information is particularly helpful in identifying works by artists who executed many versions of the same subject, where the issue is often whether the work in question is the same as the work mentioned as belonging to a particular collection. Many research libraries also provide free electronic access to subscription databases of sales and art auction records. These include ArtNet, Art Sales Catalogues Online and Artfact.

WWII-Era Looted Art Provenance Research:

Beginning in the 1930’s, the Nazi regime was responsible for the confiscation, sale, and looting of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of artworks and other items of cultural property from public and private collections throughout Europe. The scale of the systematized looting was unprecedented in history. Most items were stolen or forcibly taken from the private collections of Jews and other Holocaust victims. Other objects were taken from public and private collections in countries occupied by the Nazis. Some of the stolen works eventually entered the collections of Nazi officials; others were intended for Hitler’s planned museum in Linz; and still others were sold or traded for cash or other artworks. Although the Allied policy after the War called for the restitution of confiscated works, which were returned to the governments where their pre-War owners resided for return to the individuals, and the majority were eventually returned to their owners or heirs, an untold number werenot returned. They remained in government collections; were resold on the art market or otherwise dispersed; and still others have never been found.

In the 1990’s the unresolved issue of unrestituted art re-emerged. Provenance research was facilitated by the declassification of war records, and the end of the Cold War, which made available previously restricted or inaccessible documents. The publication of Lynn Nicholas’s Rape of Europa in 1994 and Hector Feliciano’s The Lost Museum (published in French in 1995 and in English in 1997), as well as other books, helped bring the issue of unrestituted artworks to the public’s attention and inspired numerous restitution claims by victims or their heirs. In 1998, the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets called for the identification of unrestituted artworks confiscated by the Nazis, free access to records and archival materials, and the publication of artworks known to have been stolen by the Nazis. In 1999, the American Association of Museums (AAM) established guidelines for its member museums to identify and publicize possibly looted artworks in their collections. Extensive provenance research was undertaken, and works with gaps in provenance corresponding to the pivotal war years of 1933-1945, have been posted on the AAM’s Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal. It should be noted, however, that gaps in provenance do not necessarily indicate that the works were, in fact, looted.

This article is borrowed from the International Foundation for Art Research. It was not edited from its original form and can be located at the following link along with links for further research:

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