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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.

How to Read Provenance Information

The provenance for a work of art in the Museum's collections is listed in chronological order, beginning with the earliest known owner. Life dates of an owner, collector, or dealer, if known, are enclosed in parentheses. A known association of a work of art with a specific dealer, auction house, or agent is indicated. Relationships between owners and methods of transactions are indicated by punctuation. A semicolon is used to indicate that the work passed directly between two owners (including dealers, auction houses, or agents), and a period is used to separate two owners (including dealers, auction houses, or agents) if a direct transfer did not occur or is not known to have occurred. Footnotes are used to document or clarify information.

It is important to bear in mind that gaps in provenance do not necessarily indicate that a work was looted or stolen. Provenance information is frequently difficult to uncover or establish. For example, when a single family has owned a painting for several generations there is probably no record of sale. Frequently, private collectors prefer to buy and sell works anonymously through dealers or auction houses, whose records may therefore not disclose the name of the owner. Moreover, many dealers and auction houses that were active in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are no longer in business and their records may have been lost or destroyed. Thus it is rare to find works of art having a complete history of ownership. The Museum is committed to establishing as accurate a provenance as possible for all the works of art in its collections, a process which takes many decades of focused research.

List of Works

In accordance with the American Association of Museums' Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era of April 2001, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is committed to publishing on this web site images and provenance information for works of art that were created before 1946 and acquired after 1932, that underwent or could have undergone a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946, and that were, or could have been, in continental Europe between these dates. Inclusion on this list does not imply a history of Nazi misappropriation, rather, it indicates that the object was in Europe during the years 1933–45 and could have changed hands during this time. As research progresses, new information will be added to the Museum's website until all European works of art meeting the criteria noted above have been identified. The Museum welcomes any information that would augment or clarify the provenance of these works, at .

View objects available online falling under these guidelines, arranged alphabetically by artist.


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.

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. Restitution of the Dresden Armor >>.

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.

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