Provenance is the history of ownership of an object from the moment of its creation to its present whereabouts. Provenance research reconstructs an artwork’s paper trail—sales receipts, inventories, catalogue entries, auction records, personal papers, gallery stockbooks, and other sources—to determine where an object has been, whose hands it passed through, and the method of transfer from collector to collector.
Museums research provenance in the normal course of acquisitions and collections study. Establishing clear provenance has become especially critical since the 1990s, when the fall of the Berlin Wall and opening of Soviet-era archives to the West revealed the extent of Nazi spoliation before and during WWII. Artworks confiscated illegally by Nazi forces have since been discovered in museum collections around the world. In 1998, groups representing forty-four nations signed the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which urges museums to investigate, document, and publish information about objects in their collections that were created before 1946 and traded after 1932, and may have been in continental Europe during that era (“covered objects”). The Washington Principles called for an immediate focus on paintings, sculpture, and Judaica. The American Association of Museums (today the American Alliance of Museums) and the Association of Art Museum Directors likewise introduced guidelines for WWII-era provenance research in American museums.
KAM is committed to researching the WWII-era provenance of relevant objects in its collection. In 2007, the museum published its “gap list” of objects with incomplete provenance records for the crucial years 1933-1945 on the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP). To further its goal of transparency in this ongoing process, KAM is now making the gap list available on the museum website. KAM will update the list as new information becomes available. An object’s inclusion in the gap list does not indicate a problematic provenance. Rather, it reveals that the available information is inadequate to reconstruct or confirm a provenance, or that additional resources are required to complete the painstaking study.
There are significant challenges to provenance research. Museum collections with objects created before 1946 rarely have uninterrupted provenances records for all their covered objects. Complete provenances are the exception, not the norm. Establishing a chain of ownership requires clear, accurate, and reliable historical documentation. The destruction and dispersal of archives, libraries, and personal records caused by the ravages of WWII complicate this task. Moreover, an artwork’s title, attribution, and even size often change over time, making it even more difficult to trace. Finally, privacy laws in certain regions prevent dealers and auction houses from sharing vital information. Consequently, many provenance records remain incomplete after decades of research.
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi forces driven by the Hitler’s racist and aesthetic ideologies confiscated an estimated 650,000 paintings, sculptures, and other art objects from private and public collections in Europe. In 1937, Hitler authorized the confiscation of 17,000 works of modern art that were deemed “degenerate” from public collections in Germany. The works deemed most degenerate, including those by artists Otto Dix, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee, were exhibited in the 1937 Degenerate Art show in Munich. The German state later sold much of this confiscated art, but more than 4,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, and works in other media were burnt in a 1939 bonfire with the intention of purifying the German art world. The law ordering these confiscations has never been repealed and still constitutes a lawful act of state. Accordingly, pieces of “degenerate” art seized from German museums in 1937—many of which may now be found in American museums—cannot be subject to restitution under the law.
Beginning in earnest around 1935, the Nazis seized artworks from individuals, businesses, and cultural institutions in Germany using a variety of legal, quasi-legal, and outright illegal methods. Anti-Semitic legislation forced Jews to transfer ownership of their private property and business holdings, including art galleries, to Aryan citizens. Panic-stricken Jews sold their artworks at depressed prices to buy passage out of the Reich (flight assets), or they sold artworks to Aryan friends for safekeeping. In some instances, Jews were coerced to sell artworks below market value by intimidation (forced sales). In many cases, no documentation of these coercive transfers exists.
As Germany invaded and annexed neighboring countries, the Nazis applied anti-Semitic laws and tactics to occupied territories. Spoliated art entered the international art market, and during WWII European auction houses enjoyed their most successful years of the century.
In 1943, the United States established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Subcommission to coordinate the protection of European monuments and the postwar restitution of cultural artifacts in Europe. The “Monuments Men” were tasked with finding, inspecting, and inventorying every artwork that arrived at thousands of collecting points across Germany. At the end of WWII, these forces discovered approximately 1,500 repositories of stolen property in formerly German-occupied territories, including artworks, personal goods, and household objects worth an estimated five billion dollars.
In the mid-1990s, public awareness of the practice and extent of Nazi art looting greatly increased, and with it came increased scrutiny of efforts for recovery and restitution. Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (1994 book and 2006 film) exposed to a fuller extent Nazi efforts to steal, transport, hide, and display art. With The Rape of Europa, American audiences were introduced to the alarming notion that their public collections potentially held Nazi-looted art. The heirs of Nazi victims began in the late 1990s to make highly publicized restitution requests from American collections. These remarkable cases inspired the Washington Principles and the AAM and AAMD guidelines that urge museums to identify and research works that may have been confiscated during the Nazi regime and never restituted to their lawful owners.
We at KAM are dedicated to upholding these guidelines and to sharing the results of our ongoing research. This project underscores the museum’s broad commitment to the sensitive and ethical acquisition, study, and exhibition of cultural property from diverse eras, locations, and sources.
Sources of information on WWII-era spoliation are discovered and elaborated regularly. Please consult the United States National Archives and Records Administration for current bibliographies.