Moretto da Brescia (b. Alessandro Bonvicino Moretto, Italy, 1498–1554), Portrait of an Unidentified Man, ca. 1525-1550. Oil on canvas. Gift of Merle J. and Emily Trees 1945-1-2

An interdisciplinary practice, provenance research relies heavily on materials like inventories of collections, catalogues raisonné, exhibition catalogues, and correspondence between artists, dealers, and collectors. These sources convey information about buyers and sellers, the contents of collections, and even prices paid for artworks. Scholarship becomes sleuthing once traditional methodologies are exhausted: clues in curatorial files, stamps on the backs of paintings, and handwritten annotations in auction catalogues may lead to documents as varied as immigration forms, tax filings, wills, export declarations, and genealogical records. Together, these sources help reconstruct object biographies.

Marks and Labels: The Imprints of Exchange

One of the most revealing sources of provenance is the artwork itself. Physical examination of a painting’s component parts—the support, stretcher and keys, and frame—can provide material evidence of its physical trajectory. The back of a painting is like a passport, collecting evidence of its journeys as the painting was acquired, transported, and exhibited. Some early modern collectors marked their artifacts with crests, initials, and insignia made of ink or wax. For more than a century, countries with cultural property export laws have designated objects approved for export with rubber stamps, the design of which may vary from one regime to the next. Each gallery, museum, and auction house has a unique numbering and labeling system. Symbols applied to objects can identify not just owners, but also timelines and geographical circuits. 

The back of Portrait of an Unidentified Sitter, attributed to Moretto da Brescia, features a paper label from the Viennese E. & A. Silberman Galleries and a two-headed eagle stamp the Austrian monuments office used for four years in the 1930s. The Nazi Hakenkreuzstempel (swastika stamp) replaced this stamp some five months after Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria.[1] Nazi looting of Austrian collections began soon after the annexation; therefore, stolen art might have left Austria during those five months bearing the two-headed eagle stamp. The absence of a Nazi export stamp does not guarantee the legitimacy of this transaction. 

Silberman Galleries was Aryanized after the annexation and its inventory was transferred to a non-Jewish owner.[2] Despite this hardship, its owners continued to operate E. & A. Silberman Galleries in New York during and after the war, and this branch has been linked to spoliated artworks.[3] Research in the Austrian monuments agency archives failed to determine precisely when this portrait was exported from Austria, or how the Austrian branch of Silberman Galleries originally acquired the painting.[4] Thus, physical clues on artworks are precisely that: clues, not answers, which require further investigation and which may prove inconclusive.

Collectors, Identity, and Lineage

Another challenge to provenance researchers involves family lineage. Artworks may be passed down as heirlooms without generating paperwork beyond vaguely-worded wills. Sorting the identities of relatives bearing identical names to determine periods of ownership is a common challenge, which can sometimes be resolved by consulting genealogical records. More complex cases involve female collectors whose surnames change over time.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Augustine, John the Baptist, Monica, and Nicholas of Tolentino presents this challenge. Catalogues, curatorial records, and labels on this painting’s back side indicated it belonged to one man and four women during the twentieth century. Genealogical research and newspaper clippings from New York society pages resolved that the four women were, in fact, a single collector whose name changed as a result of her successive marriages and divorces: born Harriet Harris in 1885, this collector changed her name to Harriet (Hattie) Schulte, then to Mrs. Edouard Jonas, and finally to Mrs. H. Harris Jonas.[5] Thus, this painting was owned by Mrs. Harris in America during the entire Nazi era and was not subject to spoliation.

Untraceable Provenances

Uninterrupted provenances are the exception, not the norm. Records, if they exist at all, can be destroyed or dispersed over time, and privacy laws and institutional regulations prevent dealers and auction houses from sharing certain information with researchers. Looters seldom keep detailed records of their spoils.[6] Artworks can change names, attributions, and even measurements over the years. 

Portrait of a Girl, attributed to Ambrosius Holbein, has an incomplete provenance. Once part of the illustrious Ambras Castle collection formed by Archduke Ferdinand II, this portrait was moved to Vienna for safekeeping from pillaging soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. It entered the Vienna Kunsthistoriches Museum in the late nineteenth century.[7] In 1937, the museum traded it to the Amsterdam art dealer Pieter de Boer, but it is not clear if the painting left Austria at that time. During the twentieth century, the painting passed through Switzerland, where it received two customs stamps. By 1940, the painting was with Silberman Galleries in New York and was acquired by a collector there before arriving at the University of Illinois.[8]  

Where was this painting between the highly problematic years of 1937 and 1940? Was it in the possession of the Amsterdam gallery? Why and when did it travel to Switzerland? There is no known archive for any branches of Silberman Galleries, now defunct, and the current incarnation of the Amsterdam gallery is unresponsive to inquiries. The museum continues to investigate this significant but not uncommon provenance gap.

Ownership and the Transformation of Meaning

There is no question a provenance paper trail provides important legal information about an object. But it can also offer unique insights into the evolution of an artwork’s meaning for its successive owners. Bartoloméo Esteban Murillo’s Christ After the Flagellation is one of five known versions of this subject by the celebrated Sevillano artist.[9] The early provenance of this painting is unknown, but it likely remained in or around Seville through the eighteenth century. A Spanish Baroque masterpiece, the early modern ownership and display of this work in the Catholic stronghold of Spain would have denoted religious devotion and aesthetic taste.

Frank Hall Standish, an English expatriate in Seville, acquired the Flagellation in the early nineteenth century. It formed part of his magnificent collection of more than 200 mostly Spanish paintings.[10] The collection revealed Standish’s affinity for the aesthetic of his adoptive land, and likely helped ingratiate him with Seville’s cultural élite. In 1842 Standish bequeathed his collection to Louis-Philippe of France, as evidence of his “great esteem for a generous and polite nation.”[11] Just two years earlier Louis-Philippe had created a “Spanish Gallery” in the Louvre and he installed Standish’s collection in showrooms adjacent to it.[12] Together, this outstanding collection of Spanish Baroque art—newly popular in northern Europe after the defeat of Napoleon and the Spanish liberation—expressed Louis-Philippe’s magnificence, wealth, and taste. More crucially, because he occupied a precarious political position as the appointed “citizen-king” of France, the display of Louis-Philippe’s new collection conveyed his legitimacy by making good on his promise to increase access to France’s cultural riches, while simultaneously recalling the glorious legacy of kingly collecting.[13]

In 1853, after the abdication, flight to England, and death of Louis-Philippe, the Flagellation was acquired by Thomas Conolly, an Irish Member of Parliament.[14] Obtained at a time when the Spanish Baroque was highly valued in Catholic Ireland, it is the first authentic work by Murillo known to have entered an Irish collection.[15] Evidently proud of the acquisition, the Conolly family lent the Flagellation to the 1853 Irish Industrial Exhibition[16] and the 1872 Dublin Exhibition,[17] events that demonstrated Ireland’s growing cosmopolitanism as the “Irish Question” of independence from Britain simmered. The exhibition of the Flagellation alongside other works by European masters at Castletown, the Conollys’ genteel manor house in County Kildare, demonstrated quiet opulence and Christian devotion.[18]

The painting remained in the British Isles until University of Illinois benefactors Mr. and Mrs. Herman C. Krannert acquired it in 1957. In the context of Krannert Art Museum’s encyclopedic collection, the exhibition of Murillo’s Flagellation has taken on new meaning, becoming an important tool for studying the Counter-Reformation and Spanish Baroque art.


Author: Nancy Karrels, doctoral student in Art History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2017.


Selected Bibliography

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

Lillie, Sophie. Was Einmal War: Handbuch der enteigneten Kunstsammlungen Wiens. Vienna: Czernin Verlags, 2003.

Nicholas, Lynn H. The Rape of Europa. The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

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

Valland, Rose. Le front de l'art: Défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1997.

Yeide, Nancy H., Amy Walsh, and Konstantin Akinsha. The AAM Guide to Provenance Research. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2001.



[1] Correspondence with Kommission für Provenienz-forschung beim BKA, p.A. Bundesdenkmalamt, Austria (16 January 2016; 23 February 2017).

[2] Sophie Lillie, Was Einmal War: Handbuch der enteigneten Kunstsammlungen Wiens (Vienna: Czernin Verlags, 2003), 1202–13.

[3] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, “Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior,” Stephen J. Knerly, Jr., “Selected Issues for American Art Museums Regarding Holocaust-Era Looted Art,” Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets (26–30 June, 2009), 6.

[4] Austrian export records indicate Silberman Galleries, Vienna exported dozens of artworks from Austria after the 12 March 1938 Anschluss with Germany, but none of these records can be linked to the portrait. “Ansuchen um Ausfuhrbewillingung,” Bundesdenkmalamt, Austria, 29 March 1938–3 December 1938.

[5] “Loan Exhibition of Flemish Primitives,” Kleinberger Galleries, New York (October–November 1929), no. 36, “Lent by Mrs. Hattie Schulte;” “A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture,” Art Institute of Chicago (1 June–1 November, 1934), no. 123, “Lent by Mrs. Edouard Jonas;” “An Exhibition of European Art 1450–1500,” Brooklyn Museum (8 May–8 June, 1936), no. 23, “Lent by Mrs. Edouard L. Jonas;” Mrs. Harris H. Jonas Inventory, Greenwich House Music School Committee Charity Exhibition (1953); “Mrs. Schulte Wed to Edouard Jonas,” New York Times (10 January, 1930), 22; “Divorces Edouard Jonas. Wife of Art Dealer, Ex-Deputy of France, Gets Idaho Decree,” New York Times (28 February, 1941), 20; “Mrs. H. Harris Jonas, 89, Philanthropic Leader Here” (obituary), New York Times (9 May, 1974), 46.

[6] State-sponsored spoliation by Nazi forces was a rare exception. To present a veneer of legitimacy, Nazi agents often documented the confiscation of Jewish collections. At least one German shipping firm, Schenker, maintained detailed records of its art transport services for Nazi agents and art dealers. See generally Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa (New York: Vintage Books, 1995). Rose Valland, a French art historian, kept secret records of artworks plundered by Nazi forces in Paris: Le front de l'art: Défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1997.

[7] Ambras Castle inventory number 1237; Vienna Kunsthistoriches Museum inventory number 5613. Personal correspondence, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, 7 April 2016. 

[8] Portrait of a Girl was purchased from E. & A. Silberman Galleries, New York by Billy Rose (1889–1966), a theatre producer, around 1940. It was back with Silberman Galleries by 1943, when it was purchased by Merle J. Trees, and subsequently donated to the University of Illinois by Merle J. and Emily N. Trees. “Billy Rose Starts Home Art Gallery,” New York Times (29 August 1940), 22; “Billy Rose Joins Old Master Collector Ranks,” Art Digest (1 September 1940), 11.

[9] Charles Boyd Curtis, Velazquez and Murillo: A Descriptive and Historical Catalogue of the Works of Don Diego De Silva Velazquez and Bartolomé Estéban Murillo (London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1883), 201.

[10] J.M. Fewster, “The Making of Frank Hall Standish,” Transactions of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland 6 (1982), 27–30.

[11] “…en témoignage de ma grande estime pour une nation généreuse et polie…” Quoted in Georges Wildenstein, “Le don d’un collectionneur anglais à Louis-Philippe, la Collection Standish,” La Chronique des Arts. Supplément à la “Gazette des Beaux-Arts” no. 5 (July–August 1959), 1. 

[12] Catalogue des Tableaux, Dessins et Gravures de la Collection Standish, Légués au Roi par M. Franck Hall Standish (Paris: Imprimerie de Crapelet, 1842), no. 113, “Le Christ après la Flagélation.” 

[13] Alisa Luxenberg, The Galerie Espagnole and the Museo Nacional 1835–1853: Saving Spanish Art, or the Politics of Patrimony (Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008), 55–59.

[14] Catalogue des Tableaux formant la Célèbre Collection Standish Léguée à S.M. feu Le Roi Louis Philippe par M. Frank Hall Standish sale, Christie’s London, 27–28 May 1853, no. 116. 

[15] Philip McEvansoneya, “The Murillos from Ballyfin and Castletown and the Taste for Spanish Art in Ireland,” unpublished talk, 2. Presented at Art in the Country House, Dublin, 23 April 2015. My thanks to the author for sharing this essay.

[16] John Sproule, editor, The Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853 (Dublin: James McGlashan, 1854), 457 no. 48. 

[17] Dublin Exhibition of Art, Industries, Manufactures & Loan Museum (Dublin: 1872), no. 18.

[18] A 1913 photograph of the Red Drawing Room at Castletown House places Murillo’s Flagellation in situ among other works in the Conolly collection. Irish Georgian Society Records, vol. 1 (Dublin, 1913), pl. xxviii.