Pictures tell stories

Art Research Service_Bild_ENGI am often asked: What is actually provenance research? Or, asked in terms of activities: What exactly is it that a provenance researcher is doing? Or, thought very pragmatic: Why do you do that?

Why Provenance Research?

The last question at least is easily to answer for me: Because it is incredibly exciting. Provenance research is detective work. A search for small pieces of the puzzle to get a bit closer to the truth. This requires meticulous research for information in archives, libraries, on the object itself and much more.

The word „provenance“ comes from the Latin provenire meaning „descending, coming from“ – Provenance researchers are looking for the origin of the art works. Provenance in an art historical context is defined as „history of the transfer of ownership of an object, its various stays in prestigious private collections“ (Jaquet (1962): Werte und Preise auf dem Weltmarkt neuzeitlicher Kunst, p 87). The provenance research deals with as the seamless as possible reconstruction of the owners sequence and relationships.

Every picture, every work of art tells a story, not just the ones it depicts (for example an allegorical scene), but also by its way through the story. Who has owned it? Who has bought it, and why? In what surroundings has it been displayed? Where was it exhibited? Who has seen it, who wrote about it? Whom was it given to and for what purpose? The object itself contributes to reconstructing the history and stories. As a provenance researcher I explore and tell these stories.

Provenance Research for Looted Art of the Third Reich

Particular importance is due if it concerns the provenance of works of art that have changed hands in the Nazi era. Even today, nearly 70 years after the war. Last but not least the current debate about the case Gurlitt shows that the issue of Nazi-confiscated cultural property (Nazi-looted art) or relocated treasures from other countries due to the war is still far from solved. The database „Lost Art“ of the German „Koordinierungsstelle für Kulturgutverluste“ lists numerous cases, mostly Jewish provenance of art, that have been lost since the Nazi era. Museums are still expecting restitution claims for works of art from heirs of in the Nazi era persecuted parents and grandparents. The former owners became victims of the Holocaust, their possessions came to museums, the art trade and into private collections. At the same time  one can also find reports of works of art in „Lost Art“, of which, although it is known that they are looted, no heir could be found.

Provenance Research for the acquisitions between 1933 and 1945 has played a minor role in Germay for a long time, but neither in the international art scene. Not until the 1990s, with the Washington Declaration of 1998, it gained in importance. Step by step provenance research jobs in German museums were established, financially supported by federal funds.

More and more museums today employ full-time provenance researchers who explore single collection pieces, when and how they got into the museum’s collection. So it become possible for museums, to examine at least parts of their collections in terms of the acquisition circumstances during the Nazi era and even initiate numerous restitution cases. These projects are funded by the federal government. Since the start of 2015, this support is intensified by the establishment of the „German Centre for Cultural losses“ (Deutsches Zentrum für Kulturgutverluste) – also a result of the public interest in the „case Gurlitt“.

Affected by this issue are museums, art dealers, private collectors and the heirs of the victims – worldwide, as long as it is a work of art that has been in Germany during the Nazi era. And this will probably stay the same until all cases are resolved, until all the stories are told.

In this I see my task: Contributing to clarify the origin of the works of art that have been stolen from their Jewish owners between 1933 and 1945. This detective work is my passion.

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