What is Provenance and Why Does It Matter?

This past May I attended a Provenance Seminar at the National Archives in Washington D.C. funded, in part, by a grant from the Kress Foundation. Before I worked in museums, provenance was not a word I was familiar with, but since I have come to realize all of the legal and ethical issues associated with it. Provenance is the history of the ownership of an object as it passes through time. Some objects have rather lengthy, illustrious histories. They may have been owned by royalty, barons, wealthy international collectors, or even foreign governments. Others may have been passed down through a family, uneventfully, from generation to generation. But whatever the case, it is the responsibility of a museum to make certain, to the best of its ability, that any object entering the collection has been transferred legally from one owner to another, and that no import/export laws were violated.

One provenance issue that has been of prime importance to museums in recent years is that of Nazi looting in WWII. A seminar that I attended in Washington D.C. in 2011 dealt primarily with this problem. During the war, Hitler and his officers confiscated many works of art during the invasion and occupation of Europe. Some works were taken from state museums, palaces, etc., others from Jewish family collections. After the war, rather than being returned to their legal owners, many of these artworks made their way to the art market, some resold a number of times, and they fell into public and private collections around the world.

In 2011 the Kress Foundation began the lengthy process of investigating WWII provenance issues regarding works collected by Samuel H. Kress that are now in museums and universities nationwide. Although the majority of the works have indisputable provenance, others have incomplete ownership data. Last November Fulvia Zaninelli, who is heading the Kress Provenance project from her office in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., made a trip to Brooks Museum to examine its Kress paintings as she has done at many other institutions. The images and information she has gathered here will be consolidated with those collected from other Kress recipients and any works that appear to have significant gaps in their provenance will be researched further.

Museums worldwide have taken up the task of researching their own collections to locate any of these objects and return them to their rightful owner. Success in tracing this type of information has been vastly improved due to the internet and many of the newly available resources were outlined and discussed at the Washington conference. Although it is still very time consuming, researching provenance can be extremely fascinating as you check old invoices, photographs, auction catalogues, publications, etc. to verify ownership history. And in the course of your investigation you never know what you may find along the way. In my own research I’ve found previous alternate titles for a work, ascertained that another painting had been cut down from its original size, and other evidence that consequently changed the date of a painting. Very much like searching one’s own genealogy, it takes you on different paths, and sometimes with surprising results.

Marilyn Masler

Associate Registrar

Posted by Andria Lisle at 9:06 AM
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