Provenance Guide


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.

What Is 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.

Researching 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.    

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

Bibliography and Other Resources

General Provenance Research

International Foundation for Art Research. “Provenance & Due Diligence,” special double issue of  IFAR Journal Volume 3, nos. 3&4, 2000.

Pearson, David. Provenance Research in Book History: A Handbook. London: The British Library, 1994.

Saltzman, Cynthia. Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece, Money, Politics, Collectors, Greed, and Loss. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Yeide, N., A. Walsh, and K. Akinsha. The AAM Guide to Provenance Research. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2001.

 WWII-Era Art Looting

Akinsha, Konstantin and Kozlov, Grigorii, with Sylvia Hochfield. Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasures. New York: Random House, 1995.

Bernhard, M. Verlorene Werke der Malerei in Deutschland in der Zeit von 1939 bis 1945: Zerstörte und Verschollene Gemälde aus Museen und Galerien. Munich: Ackermanns, 1965.

Bradsher, Greg, compiled by. Holocaust-Era Assets: A Finding Aid to Records at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1999.

British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives and Other Material in Enemy Hands. Works of Art in Austria: Losses and Survivals in the War. London, 1946.

British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives and Other Material in Enemy Hands. Works of Art in Italy: Losses and Survivals in the War. London, 1945.

Elen, Albert J. Missing Old Master Drawings from the Franz Koenigs Collection Claimed by the State of The Netherlands. SDU Publishers: The Hague, 1989.

Feliciano, Hector. The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art. New York: Basic Books, 1997 (publ. in French, 1995).

Kurtz, Michael J. Nazi Contraband: American Policy on the Return of European Cultural  Treasures, 1945-1955. Garland Publishing: New York & London, 1985.

Ministère des Affaires Étrangères. Collection Schloss: oeuvres spoliées pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale non restitutées (1943-1998). Paris: Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, 1998.

Morozzi, Luisa. Treasures Untraced: An Inventory of the Italian Art Treasures Lost during the Second World War. Rome: Instituto poligrafico e zecca dello stato, 1995.

Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Office Belge de l’Economie et de l’Agriculture. Missing Art Works of Belgium, Bruxelles: 1994-.

Petropoulos, Jonathan. The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Répertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre, 1939-1945. Multivolume set, see particularly Tome II: Paintings, Tapestries and Sculptures. Berlin: Impr. Nationale, 1947-.

Simpson, Elizabeth, ed. The Spoils of War: World War II and its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance and Recovery of Cultural Property. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.

Smyth, Craig Hugh. Repatriation of Art from the Collecting Point in Munich after World War II. Maarseen: The Hague, 1988.

Antiquities and Cultural Property Issues

Brodie, Neil, Morag Kersel, Christina Luke & Kathryn Walker Tub, eds. Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Cuno, James. Who Owns Antiquity? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Darraby, Jessica L. Art, Artifact, Architecture and Museum Law. Eagan, MN: Thomson Reuters/West, 2008.

Gerstenblith, Patty. Art, Cultural Heritage, and the Law: Cases and Materials. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008.

Gibbon, Kate Fitz. Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Hoffman, Barbara T., ed. Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Merryman, John Henry. Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts, 5th ed. The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International BV, 2007.

Miles, Margaret M. Art as Plunder: The Ancient Origins of Debate about Cultural Property. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

O’Keefe, Patrick J. Trade in Antiquities: Reducing Destruction and Theft. London: UNESCO, 1997.

Richman, Jennifer R. and Marion P. Forsyth. Legal Perspectives on Cultural Resources.  Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press, 2004.

Waxman, Sharon. Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World. New York: Times Books, 2008.