Artworks, and especially their physical supports, can be rich sources of provenance information.
Collectors, dealers, auction houses, customs agents, and museums often apply stickers, seals, stamps, and manuscript inscriptions to the backs of paintings to document possession and transit. However, these marks can fade over time, or their sources become obscure.
The verso of Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of an Unidentified Man features an assortment of handwritten numbers, a paper label, and a round stamp.
Of particular significance is the faded round stamp on the horizontal stretcher crossbar, to the left of the manuscript numbers “154-155.” The Austrian monuments office used this stamp bearing the Austrian two-headed eagle between 1934 and 1938 to designate cultural property approved for export. During a period of five months after the 1938 German annexation of Austria and the nearly immediate start of the Nazi plunder of Jewish art collections in Austria, the two-headed eagle stamp remained in use for cultural exports. Eventually, the Nazi swastika stamp (Hakenkreuzstempel) replaced this stamp.
Could this painting have left Austria during the five-month window when cultural exports were stamped with the two-headed eagle?
Research in Austrian customs archives failed to turn up information about Portrait of an Unidentified Sitter. The museum continues to investigate the provenance of this painting.
Author: Nancy Karrels, doctoral candidate in Art History and guest curator of Provenance: A Forensic History of Art, 2017