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Provenance Research: An Art Detective Traces the Life of Artworks

Associate Research Curator Christel Force, standing in front of Sol Lewitt, Wall Drawing #370, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through January 28, 2018. Photo by Sumi Hansen

The Met has just launched a new website feature on provenance research to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Washington Principles on Holocaust-Era Assets. We sat down with Associate Research Curator Christel Force to learn more about it.

So, what does a provenance researcher do?

When my kids were little, sometimes at the dinner table I would talk about my day at work. Usually it would be about the quest for and discovery of some archival document that shed light on an obscure episode in the life of an object—an artwork, to be precise.

I'm well aware that archival research is not all that exciting to most (although it is to me), but my kids thought it was cool and told their friends: "My mom is an art detective!" (Nothing much about me is cool anymore in their eyes, I'm afraid, but that's as it should be.)

In the profession we're called provenance researchers, but "art detective" has a more glamorous James Bond–ish ring to it. So there you have it, I am an art detective.

Wait—what do you mean, "the life of an object"?

Objects have a life from the time they are created, and provenance traces their biography; that is, their whereabouts in time and space. It is also called "ownership history," because objects always belong to someone. Provenance is the lives of objects and their owners, wrapped into one.

Museums traditionally record the provenance of the artworks in their care: who owned a work; when and how they parted with it; which collectors, dealers, agents, and auction houses owned it or played a part in the transfer of ownership; and, parenthetically, where it was exhibited or discussed and reproduced in the literature.

Is it possible to reconstruct the whole history of every object?

No, not always. Sometimes there are gaps in the sequence of ownership. For an object going back to antiquity there may be centuries-long gaps, but we mostly focus on the last five or six decades. The older the object, the likelier it is that some periods are undocumented. Conversely, for a more recent artwork it is possible to pin down every transfer, occasionally to the very day when each occurred; although it is by no means always the case. We do the best we can, and we document every step of the sleuthing so that hopefully down the line the research can be revisited when new archives open up or relevant expertise emerges.

Why does provenance matter?

It matters for a number of reasons. It's historically significant if a work belonged to a famous connoisseur—an authority in this particular type of artwork, or someone who knew the artist, for instance. A desirable pedigree adds cachet and increases the market value of an object. Provenance is also a way of verifying attribution and authenticity, as when the artwork can be traced back to the painter's primary dealer, or to a friend of the artist's. Finally, it is essential to ensure that good title has passed with every transfer; in other words, that there was no episode of illegal appropriation in its past, which would invalidate the current ownership.

This is crucial in the case of cultural patrimony issues, regarding illegally exported antiquities or colonial-era artefacts, but also with regard to Holocaust-era art theft.

Germans carrying art

Germans display Botticelli's masterpiece, Camilla and the Centaur, from the Uffizi

In the 1930s and 40s, the systematic persecution of Jews and unlawful appropriation of their property by the Nazis led to the loss of countless collections. One must identify such dispossessions so that the relevant objects may be restituted to the victims' heirs. To do so, it is essential to reconstruct the histories of artworks and their owners by looking at the records of art dealers (ledgers, memos, correspondence, photo albums, etc.), as well as the personal archives of collectors, curators, and scholars. In some cases, it also requires looking at the records kept by the German occupying forces and their art-looting task force, those of the Allies' intelligence and recovery units, and those relating to post-war restitution and compensation claims.

How did American museums help?

American museums were well aware of Nazi art theft, and in the 1940s the US was instrumental in restitution efforts. In 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Roberts Commission to salvage cultural treasures threatened by the Axis Powers in Europe; and the 345 men and women who served in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA) were famously known as the Monuments Men. In 1944 the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS, an ancestor of the CIA), also created the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU), a special intelligence unit tasked to investigate art spoliation in Nazi-occupied territories.

American soldiers rescuing art

American GIs carry paintings down the steps of the castle at Neuschwanstein under the supervision of Captain James Rorimer (second from left), a former curator and, later, director of The Met

The majority of Monuments Men and ALIU agents had been museum curators before the war, and returned to work in museums again after the war. Provenance research is a specialized and time-consuming undertaking, however, and curators could typically only go so far. Resources were limited, and archives were also not readily available at that time. But suddenly, in the 1990s, all this changed.

Before the 1990s, museum curators did, of course, publish the provenance of artworks in collection and exhibition catalogues. However, the amount of time and expertise that museums in general, and The Met in particular, commit to provenance research today, and the transparency and accessibility of this information, have grown significantly since 1998.

What happened to alter the landscape in the 1990s?

Several factors played a role in bringing provenance research to the fore. This decade saw the publication of two books that drew attention to the Nazi confiscation of artworks: Lynn Nicholas's The Rape of Europa (1994), and Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum (1997). The United States held Congressional hearings in 1996 on the recovery of Holocaust-victim deposits in Swiss banks. And an Egon Schiele restitution claim shook the New York art world in 1997. It was clear that new measures had to be taken to address Holocaust-era art theft in earnest.

The watershed moment came in 1998. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) produced a report that directed its members to proactively research their collections to ascertain whether any of the artworks in their care were looted during the Nazi era, and urged them to make this information accessible through the creation of databases.

That same year, the Department of State in Washington, DC hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, and forty-four nations signed the "Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art," which museums follow to this day.

The Washington Principles coincided with the technological revolution that made transparency possible, enabling museums to move from siloed paper files to linked open data. New technologies also transformed archival research by shifting from printed finding aids that were only available on-site to digitized finding aids that were fully accessible online. The expanding number of archival records that have become accessible in the US and abroad in the last two decades, some of them digitized, have also enabled museums to research their collections in ways that were not formerly possible.

So 2018 is a big year—a milestone anniversary.

Yes it is, and to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Washington Principles, The Met has launched a new anniversary web feature and this related series of blog posts. The web feature is packed with rich information about provenance research and offers a portal to provenance research projects at museums around the world, including The Met's own Provenance Research Project database—a catalogue of objects in The Met's online collection that changed hands in continental Europe between 1933 and 1944 and that still have gaps in their provenance.

We invite you to explore the anniversary web feature and to learn more about the life stories of artworks in our Provenance Research series here on the Collection Insights blog.

Provenance Research Resources

A portal to historical documents and provenance research projects at The Met, across the United States, and abroad.

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