Researching Provenance

In the course of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets which was held at Washington, D. C. on 3 December, 1998, eleven principles (the ‘Washington Principles’) were endorsed regarding works of art confiscated by the National Socialists.

Blick in den Ehrenhof 1926, Foto: Archiv Kunstpalast
Blick in den Ehrenhof 1926, Foto: Archiv Kunstpalast

The museums of the signatory states were urged to review their holdings as to their provenance and in particular as regards works of art unlawfully confiscated during the National Socialist period.

In their ‘Joint Declaration’ of 1999, the German Federal Government, the Lands and the umbrella organisations of local government thereupon reaffirmed their willingness to act on the basis of these Washington Principles and in accordance with their legal and actual capability, to search for further cultural assets confiscated in the course of Nazi persecution; and, if the occasion should arise, to undertake all necessary steps to find a just and fair solution. Since then, museums, archives and libraries as public facilities are called upon to give access to their documents, to disclose information and the state of their researches, to review their stocks and to publicise objects whose provenance is uncertain or questionable.

The Bundestag passed a resolution on the basis of which such projects can be supported; and when the Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast, with the aims above in mind, set up a scientific research project on provenance to run from 2010 to the end of 2011, support came, via the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, on behalf of the Office for Provenance Research at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the German Government’s Deputy for Culture and the Media. During Nazi rule, numerous works of art were acquired in the occupied countries for the Düsseldorf Kunstmuseum and later, upon the resolution of the Allied administration, returned to the countries of origin, chiefly the Netherlands and France.

Even so, there are many works in the Collection to this day that came to it from within Germany by way of legitimate purchases, exchange, gifts, endowment and estates, for example, and which date from before 1945 and show gaps in their provenance history. In fact it is often in works acquired only after 1945 that details are missing regarding earlier previous owners, so that to date, the possibility of the work’s having been confiscated after 1933 as an act of Nazi persecution could not be ruled out with absolute certainty. Therefore provenance researches aim to establish as complete a record as possible of the origins of the works of art in question. Ultimately the fuller information, for example on the earlier owners, their distribution of property, the history and the whereabouts of art and other cultural objects, should contribute to the assessment and definitive clarification of ownership. For the present project, this means examining a work of art’s provenance as to whether it changed owners during the National Socialist period, and if so, then to investigate the circumstances in depth.

Provenance research can thus be a support in clarifying cases of cultural assets confiscated as part of Nazi persecution – looted art – and in locating and identifying such works in the first place.

Barbara Til, Deputy Head of Collections 
Tel.  +49 (0) 211 56642350

Researching Provenance Düsseldorf
Dr. Christiane Jungklaus                          
Tel. +49 211-566 42 362