An array of reproductive photos and prints of a Vermeer painting are arrayed on a study table

Photographs of Johannes Vermeer’s Lacemaker from the Getty Research Institute’s Photo Archive

From February 25 through March 2, 2018, the Getty Research Institute (GRI) hosted the German/American Provenance Research Exchange Program (PREP for short). This program seeks to expand international exchange and collaboration in the field of provenance research.

It has now been twenty years since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets ushered in a new era of art-historical research emphasizing Nazi-era provenance. During the past two decades, museums have made much progress in identifying and researching works of art that could have been susceptible to Nazi looting or forced sales. At my own institution, the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, I established the museum’s Nazi-Era Provenance Research Project in 2004. Since then, we have conducted research on hundreds of works in the collection, learning much about their provenances.

Provenance researchers utilize a wide range of resources. In my own work, I rely heavily on original archival materials, but also turn frequently to the growing number of digital resources in the field. A recent post on The Iris surveys some of these resources—among them the Getty Provenance Index databases—that have facilitated provenance research during the past two decades.

International research networks are also crucial to successful provenance research. In recent years, more opportunities to develop such networks have materialized. For example, in summer 2017, British archivists from the Colnaghi Gallery and the National Gallery of Art in London participated in a provenance research workshop for American museum professionals at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Academic conferences focusing on provenance and the history of collecting have also brought together scholars from Europe, North America, and Israel. One example—which I discussed in a blog post for the Eskenazi Museum of Art—was Collecting and Provenance: Usage, Authenticity, and Ownership, held at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, in November 2016.

What Is PREP?

Inaugurated by the Smithsonian Institution and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) in Berlin, PREP offers a novel approach to international networking, seeking to cement lasting professional relationships through longer-term exchanges. Between 2017 and 2019, PREP will convene six exchanges. Each year, the PREP steering committee selects a different cohort of participants to meet for two weeklong exchanges, one in the US and one in Germany. The 2017 exchanges took place in New York and Berlin.

Conceived by Jane Milosch, director of the Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative, PREP is intended, as she puts it, to build a “research autobahn” to facilitate the sharing of information internationally.

Twenty-six participants (thirteen affiliated with American museums and thirteen connected with German institutions) took part in the recent exchange at the Getty. The week was filled with presentations, panel discussions, and tours. Participants had varying levels of experience in the field of provenance research and were affiliated with a variety of museums and archives. Our areas of art historical expertise ranged from Byzantine art to modernism to Judaica. Some of the participants were full-time provenance specialists, and others were archivists, PhD candidates, and museum curators, who, like myself, conduct provenance research as one of many professional responsibilities.

In addition to networking with colleagues from across the United States and Germany, PREP participants learned about the numerous provenance resources at the Getty and elsewhere in Los Angeles. Additional thematic sessions enabled us to engage in discussions on a variety of topics pertinent to provenance. We addressed the use of technology in provenance research; the different approaches to the field in the US and Germany; legal perspectives on provenance issues; and how to share provenance-related topics with the public.

Provenance Resources in Los Angeles

A group of four female scholars gather around a large book in a library setting, examining its contents

PREP participants in the Getty Research Institute’s Special Collections Reading Room

The Research Institute’s special collections include numerous archives related to provenance research and the history of collecting. Two sessions during the PREP exchange were devoted to these resources. Archivists shared their expertise on the records of major galleries such as Knoedler, Schaeffer Galleries, Oude Kunst, Duveen Brothers, and French & Company. We also discussed resources such as the collectors’ files and the important photo archive housed at the Research Institute. A related PREP session on technology focused on the remodel of the Getty Provenance Index databases and the project to transform digitized German sales catalogues published between 1900 and 1945 into a searchable database.

The Getty’s leading role within the field of conservation was also showcased during the PREP exchange. A visit to the Getty Museum’s conservation labs offered insight into intersections between technical analysis and provenance research. Likewise, tours of the Getty’s decorative arts galleries, the Getty Villa, and the collections at LACMA provided the opportunity to learn about the provenance of selected objects in Los Angeles museums.

Given Los Angeles’s role as a haven for German exiles in the 1930s and 1940s, the topic of exile studies, a field that overlaps significantly with Nazi-era provenance research, was also addressed. Participants enjoyed an opening reception at the Villa Aurora, home of German exile author Lion Feuchtwanger, and learned about the exile studies materials available at the University of Southern California.

A museum conservator holds a small golden object in his hand, showing it to two women who look on intently

PREP participants in the Getty Museum’s studio for decorative arts and sculpture conservation

German versus American Approaches to Provenance Research

A central theme of the week concerned the different approaches to provenance research in the United States and Germany. Each country’s unique history obviously influences some of these differences. Germany must confront the legacy of its status as a perpetrator of art looting during the Nazi era, while the US took a leading role in postwar restitution efforts. Nevertheless, because many works from German museums and European Jewish collections (which were looted or sold under duress) entered the United States during and after the war, researchers in both countries face similar problems with their respective collections.

Funding for provenance research is handled very differently in each country. German public museums may apply for provenance research funding through the German Lost Art Foundation. This funding enables them to hire provenance researchers for designated periods of time to carry out research projects. Although some government funding exists in the United States for provenance research related to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), there is nothing comparable for other types of provenance research, including research focused on the Nazi era. Non-governmental grants, likewise, are very limited.

American museums must raise their own funds for provenance research initiatives and the staff to conduct this research. Although a few have hired full-time provenance specialists, most designate a curator, registrar, or other existing staff person to conduct this research as an ongoing part of their job. Thus, provenance research tends to be less systematic, and more claims-based, than in German museums.

Another difference concerns the publication of provenance research. Whereas American museums are more likely to post the results of provenance research within the online collection features of their websites, German recipients of government funding for provenance research must publish reports detailing the research project and its results.

Legal and Ethical Concerns in Provenance Research

A public program, Provenance Research—A Personal Concern, was held on the evening of March 1 during the PREP week. Simon Goodman, the grandson of Holocaust victims, recounted his efforts, over the last twenty-three years, to track down the whereabouts of works from his grandparents’ collection and to petition for their restitution.

As Mr. Goodman’s talk demonstrated, provenance researchers deal directly with the real-life consequences of the Third Reich’s crimes against humanity and destruction of cultural heritage. This direct connection to past crimes and current legal issues distinguishes provenance research from the broader field of art history, which is often concerned with more theoretical questions.

One of the PREP sessions dealt with the legal challenges that museums may confront if attempts to resolve restitution claims outside of the court system fail. Museums are committed to managing their collections according to ethical precepts and following the guidelines of the Washington Principles, developed twenty years ago at the Washington Conference. Sometimes, the decision to return a work to a claimant is the most ethical choice. But museums may also have reasons to consider certain claims invalid.

Because restitution claims are often filed in American courts, one of the PREP sessions focused on legal issues. The panelists offered an overview of the American legal system and discussed the implications of the recently passed HEAR (Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery) Act.

Sharing Provenance Research with the Public

An oil portrait of a woman in a red dress, looking off to her right. The painting has visible brushwork in many shades of brown, beige, and pink

Portrait of a Lady, 1895, Franz Seraph von Lenbach. Oil on canvas, 32 9/16 x 25 ½ in. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Felix Haurowitz, 81.75. Photograph by: Kevin Montague

On the final day of the PREP exchange, held at the Getty Villa, we turned our attention to the topic of sharing provenance research with the public. Several participants from Germany discussed provenance-focused exhibitions in which they have been involved as curators or researchers.

There are several reasons to make provenance research public. First and foremost, the public dissemination of provenance information aligns with the Washington Principles. By highlighting provenance in the galleries, museums can provide transparency not just about the histories of individual works of art, but also their own histories. In the case of museums that actively acquired looted art during World War II, these histories may be difficult to face. But approaching institutional history critically and honestly is ultimately the most responsible and ethical action for museums to take.

By sharing provenance stories, we can also shed new light on the complexities of the World War II era. Although stories of looted art and heated legal battles may be of greatest interest to the media, the process of provenance research often reveals other World War II-related stories that are worth telling.

In my own institution, for example, provenance research on a painting by German portraitist Franz Seraph von Lenbach (1836–1904) revealed not only that the painting’s Jewish owners escaped from Nazi-occupied Prague, but also that they managed to save their painting from Nazi looting. Non-Jewish neighbors hid the painting for thirty years and were ultimately able to return it to its rightful owners. Thus, through its provenance, this painting offers a tangible connection to a story of Jewish survival during the Holocaust.

Making provenance more visible in museum galleries also provides the public with a richer understanding of the political, social, and economic roles played by works of art as they move through time and space.

Looking Ahead

Many new professional connections were forged during the PREP exchange at the Getty. In October 2018, the PREP cohort will have the chance to strengthen these relationships when we meet again at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History) in Munich.

In 2019, the third PREP cohort will convene in Dresden and Washington, DC, and ultimately, all participants will be connected through PREP’s “research autobahn.” PREP participants will also work together to develop an online guide to provenance resources in the US and Germany. This resource will be available to the broader provenance research community, giving them access to the “research autobahn” as well.