What is Provenance Research?
Provenance is an artwork's history of ownership. Information about the provenance of an individual work of art sheds light on its historical, social, and economic context, as well as its critical fortunes through time. Knowledge about individual collectors and their collections can provide insights into the history of taste and the habits of collectors, dealers, and the relationships between them.
To learn how to read provenance information, click here.
World War II–Era Provenance Research
Recent years have seen an increased awareness of one of the many painful legacies of World War II: the continuing issues surrounding works of art that were stolen, looted, or that otherwise illicitly changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era, from 1933 to 1945. A vast number of art objects were displaced as a result of the Nazi government's systematic campaign of art looting and through forced sales from Jewish collections. Following the war the Allied Forces recovered thousands of these works of art and returned them to their former owners or their heirs. When owners could not be located, because they had fled or perished in the war or the Holocaust, the Allies returned looted works of art to the country from which they had been taken. After the war many paintings, sculpture, and other objects came onto the international art market and were purchased in good faith by museums and collectors. Some of these works were later discovered to have been looted from public museums or private collections and not subsequently restituted.
Provenance research is a regular, ongoing part of curatorial work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Museum has made a particular effort to investigate the World War II-era provenance of the European paintings, sculptures and decorative arts in the collection. The Museum's research aims to determine whether any objects that have entered the collection since 1932 could have been stolen and not subsequently returned to their rightful owners. In accordance with the American Association of Museums Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era of April 2001, the Museum has paid particular attention to works of art that changed hands during the years 1933–1945 and were—or could have been—in continental Europe at that time. To see a list of objects falling under these guidelines, with known provenance information, click here.
Provenance research led to the Philadelphia Museum of Art returning in 1999 several pieces of armor that had disappeared during the war from the public collections of the Rüstkammer museum in Dresden, Germany. To read more about the restitution of the Dresden armor, click here.
Similarly, the Museum has discovered that two paintings in the collection were stolen from their Jewish owners during the war. After the war, the Allies returned both paintings to their rightful owners. The Pensive Young Brunette by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was confiscated by the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) from a private French collection. The Nude Reclining by the Sea by Gustave Courbet was also stolen from a French private collection and was selected for inclusion in Herman Göring's personal collection of looted works of art. After their return to their owners, the restituted paintings were subsequently purchased by Louis E. Stern, who donated them to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1963.
While World War II–era provenance research focuses primarily on determining rightful ownership, investigation also reveals that several works in the collection were legally sold from public museums in Germany in the late 1930s by the Nazi government because they were denounced as "degenerate art." Although these works were not stolen, their histories highlight the fact that German museums lost many art masterpieces under the cultural policies of the Third Reich. For more information, click here.