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.
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.
Guidelines of Professional Organizations Re: Nazi-Era Looted Art
Several professional organizations have established guidelines for their members regarding the handling of artworks that may have been misappropriated during the Nazi Era. These include:
American Association of Museums (AAM)- Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era
Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD)- Task Force on the Spoliation of Art During the Nazi/WWII Era (1933-1945)
Selected Resources in WWII Provenance Research
In addition to the sites noted above, there are numerous archives and resources in the United States and Europe for conducting WWII-Era Provenance Research. Below are just a few that you may find useful:
Art Loss Register
The Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property, 1933-1945
Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE)
The Documentation Project
The Frick Art Reference Library
The Lost Art Internet Database
Musées Nationaux Recupération
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
New York State Holocaust Claims Office
Both the provenance history (ownership) and provenience (findspot) of a work of art are especially critical in the study of archaeological artifacts-antiquities. Knowing the findspot and detailing the object’s position within the site and its proximity to other items helps researchers identify the culture from which the object originated, its function, and probable date. Looters, however, often destroy archaeological sites and cause damage to movable, as well as immovable objects.
The looting and illicit export of antiquities from their countries of origin pose threats to the cultural heritage of many nations. In recent years, several international agreements, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, have been adopted to address these threats. Similarly, many countries have enacted legislation to protect their cultural heritage and restrict the ownership and export of certain types of objects. (See the Art Law and Cultural Property section of IFAR’s Website for more information.)
These agreements and laws are rarely retroactive. Therefore, the enactment date of a national ownership law or an international or bilateral agreement is significant in determining legal ownership of cultural property, making a documented provenance, including the date the object left its country of origin and its means of acquisition, crucial for a current owner to defeat an ownership claim for the work. In 2008, new guidelines for the Association of Art Museum Directors in the United States and Canada adopted the threshold date of 1970 – the date of the UNESCO Convention – for applying more stringent acquisition standards for archaeological objects. Member museums were given a mandate to undertake provenance research to substantiate that an object was “outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970 or was legally exported after 1970.”
In addition to IFAR’s own Art Law and Cultural Property Website, which has the most extensive information and legislation on this subject, we are listing below a few other resources for information about laws and provenance concerning antiquities and other cultural objects:
Association of Art Museum Directors: Object Registry
Oriental Institute: Lost Treasures from Iraq
The Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation
UNESCO Cultural Heritage Laws Database
US State Department: International Cultural Property Protection