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Provenance Research

Research into provenance, or the history of ownership of an individual work of art, is an essential component of museum practice. This research sheds light on an artwork’s historical, social, and economic context, revealing the compelling story behind the work.

Two conservators working on a framed artwork

Overview

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 a Work’s Provenance Information

Provenance information for a work of art in the museum 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.

The term “with” (for example, “with Ambroise Vollard”) is a blanket term that includes the possibility that a work was not owned outright by the dealer, but was simply consigned to them by the owner, in which case the dealer was authorized to transfer ownership.

If you have inquiries or information regarding the provenance of works in the museum’s collection, please contact provenance@philamuseum.org.

List of Works

In accordance with the American Alliance of Museums’ Standards Regarding the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era (formerly called Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era) of April 2001, the museum is committed to publishing images and provenance information on this website regarding 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 1933–1945 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 provenance@philamuseum.org.

View objects available online that fall 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 1933–45. 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, sculptures, 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 museum. 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. This 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 Alliance of Museums’ Standards Regarding the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era (formerly called 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 1933–45 and were—or could have been—in continental Europe at that time.

Provenance research led to the museum returning several pieces of armor that had disappeared during the war from the public collections of the Rüstkammer museum in Dresden, Germany in 1999. Learn more about the restitution of the Dresden Armor.

In September 2021, the museum announced the return of an important Italian pageant shield with decoration attributed to Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso (Italian, 1497–1544), which was looted by the Nazi government from Konopiště Castle in 1943, to the Czech Republic.

Similarly, the museum 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 museum in 1963.

While World War II–era provenance research focuses primarily on determining rightful ownership, investigations also reveal 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.


Degenerate Art

From the moment they came to power, the Nazis launched a vicious campaign against art they designated “degenerate,” a category that included all modernist art, especially abstract, Cubist, Expressionist, and Surrealist art. Thus Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Kandinsky, Kirchner, and even nineteenth-century Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, including Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, and Van Gogh, were reviled as exponents of avant-garde art movements that were considered intellectual, elitist, foreign, and socialist-influenced. Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall were, of course, singled out for special condemnation. The Nazi government promoted a “true” German art, continuing in the tradition of German nineteenth-century realistic genre painting, that upheld “respectable” moral values and was easy to understand. Hitler’s inner circle also treasured certain Old Masters whom they regarded as expressing the true Aryan spirit, in particular Rembrandt, Cranach, and Vermeer. Museum directors and curators who refused to cooperate with the new anti-modernist collecting policies were dismissed.(1)

In 1937, in order to purge German museums of their holdings of “degenerate” art, Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, charged a commission headed by Adolf Ziegler, one of Hitler’s favorite artists, with the seizure of works of German “degenerate” art created since 1910 owned by German state, provincial and municipal museums. Although the primary focus was on German art, the Ziegler commission’s reach soon expanded to encompass non-German artists such as the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian. The confiscated art was gathered in a huge exhibition in Munich to educate the German people about the “evils” of modern art, and especially its alleged Jewish/Bolshevist influences. Marc Chagall’s Purim, confiscated from the Museum Folkwang in Essen, was one of the paintings selected for this infamous exhibition, entitled “Degenerate Art” (Entartete Kunst), which opened in Munich on July 19, 1937. Exhibition organizers surrounded the paintings and sculptures with mocking graffiti and quotations from Hitler’s speeches, designed to inflame public opinion against this “decadent” avant-garde art. Ironically, the exhibition attracted five times as many visitors (36,000 on one Sunday alone) as the equally large “Great German Art Exhibition” of Nazi-approved art that opened in Munich at the same time.

Eventually, the Nazi authorities confiscated almost 21,000 works of art from German museums, all of which were meticulously inventoried and assigned a registry number.(2) Although “degenerate” works such as Chagall’s were to be banished from Germany, the Nazi government realized their usefulness as a convenient means of raising much-needed foreign cash to finance the war machine, or simply to acquire the type of art desired by Hitler.(3) Some of the most valuable confiscated art, such as Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait from Munich, was auctioned at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, in June 1939. Many of the rest of the museum-confiscated works were distributed to four German dealers(4), who arranged for their sale on the international art market, often for low prices. In this way, many important works of art removed from German museum collections found their way to American museums. Tragically, artworks deemed unsaleable (the “dregs,” as Goebbels called them), almost five thousand paintings and works of art on paper, were probably destroyed in a bonfire in the courtyard of the Berlin central fire station in 1939 as a fire department training exercise.

German public museums have not requested the return of artworks that were confiscated and sold off under the Nazi regime, because such seizures of art from state-owned museums by an elected government were legal. In effect, the German government was free to dispose of its own property. A law enacted (after the fact) on May 31, 1938, decreed that the Reich could appropriate artworks from public museums in Germany without compensation. Further, in September 1948, museums in West Germany issued a decision to relinquish all claims to art that had been confiscated by the Nazi government.(5)

Two other “degenerate” artworks confiscated from a German museum illustrate different stories. Both Composition with Blue by Piet Mondrian and Proun 2 by the Russian artist El Lissitzky were displayed in the Hanover Provinzialmuseum’s famous “Abstract Gallery,” designed by Lissitzky in 1927–28 to display some of the museum’s notable collection of modern abstract art. The collector Albert Eugene Gallatin acquired the two paintings from a New York dealer in 1939, knowing that Nazi officials had removed them from the Hanover museum. However, provenance research has shown that although both were swept up in the campaign of museum confiscations in 1937, neither painting actually belonged to Hanover. Lissitzky’s Proun 2 was in fact on loan to the Hanover museum from another German museum, the Städtisches Museum in Halle, while the Mondrian painting Composition with Blue most likely belonged to the artist himself.

Endnotes

  1. See Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, New York, 1994, especially Chapter 1; and “Degenerate Art”: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, edited by Stephanie Barron (exhibition catalog, Los Angeles County Museum of Art), Los Angeles, 1991.
  2. The total figure given varies between 16,500 and 20,000, with the latter number probably more accurate: see Barron, ed., “Degenerate Art”, p. 124, note 13, and p. 135.
  3. Jonathan Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich, Chapel Hill, 1996, pp. 80-81.
  4. The four dealers were Karl Buchholz, Ferdinand Möller, Bernhard Boehmer, and Hildebrand Gurlitt, all established figures in the modern art trade.
  5. For the text of the decision (in German) see Paul Ortwin Rave, Kunstdiktatur im Dritten Reich, Hamburg, 1949, p. 95.