Two heads attached at the back, looking in opposite directions.

Double Head (detail), about 1543, attributed to Francesco Primaticcio. Bronze, 15 ¼ × 13 ¾ x 8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.45. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

April 8, 2020 is the International Day of Provenance Research. Organized by the Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e.V., an international association of provenance researchers, the day is an opportunity to draw attention to the relevance of this discipline and highlight provenance work done by different institutions around the globe. Follow #TagderProvenienzforschung and #DayofProvenanceResearch on social media.

What is Provenance?

Museums use the word “provenance” a lot, but what does it mean? Provenance is the ownership history of an artwork, from when it was first created to its arrival at the museum. Museum curators spend lots of time researching to discover who owned an artwork and when, and how it changed owners.

Curators conduct provenance research in many ways. They look in books, consult archival documents, correspond with other museum curators and art dealers, and search the internet. This work allows us to learn about the artwork’s cultural and historical context. Knowing when it was sold and to whom gives us a sense of the art market at that time. We can see the history of taste – knowing what styles were popular at different times.

Below is an introduction to some of the different forms provenance research takes, and why it’s important.

Nazi-Era Looting

A basic reason for provenance’s importance is a legal one: museums need to know that they truly own an artwork. For example, during World War II, the Nazi regime confiscated a great deal of art from Jewish families, including this sculpture of Saint John the Baptist.

A robed man with long hair and beard holds a lamb that's looking up at him.

St. John the Baptist, about 1515, Master of the Harburger Altar. Partially polychromed limewood, 60 × 19 ¼ × 11 ¾ in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.1. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Taken from Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer in 1933, the sculpture was sold at auction in 1937, and later ended up in the Landesmuseum Württemberg. In 2011, the Oppenheimer’s heirs alerted the museum to the illicit provenance of the sculpture, and the museum restituted it to the heirs. The Getty bought the sculpture at auction in 2012, assured that they have clear ownership of the art.

The Getty Research Institute embarked on a project to digitize many WWII-era German sales catalogues, which helps museums with research. Aside from legal ownership, knowing the provenance informs our research in other ways. The Nazi regime’s patterns of confiscation show what they valued, and the great value they placed on controlling Europe’s cultural heritage. The displacement of Jewish-owned art also reflects, in a way, the fate of many Jews during this period.

Royal Provenance

Knowing who owned an artwork gives us a glimpse into that person’s personality and art collection. J. Paul Getty purchased this commode in 1955, one of the first pieces specifically bought for his newly-founded museum.

Four-legged wooden cabinet. Inlays are golden, while the top appears marbled.

Commode, 1769, Gilles Joubert. Oak veneered with kingwood, tulipwood, holly, bloodwood, and ebony; gilt-bronze mounts; sarrancolin marble top, 36 ¾ × 71 ¼ × 27 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 55.DA.5. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Gilles Joubert made this commode for Madame Louise, daughter of King Louis XV. We know this because an inventory number appears on the back that matches an entry in the records of the French crown.

The purchase gives us an insight into J. Paul Getty’s collecting preferences; he particularly liked artworks owned by royalty. Later, the Rothschilds, a large and well-known family of bankers and art collectors, owned this furniture piece. The well-documented Rothschild collection allows us to understand this family’s collecting habits. Knowing about these collections gives us insight into who could have seen it and been influenced by it artistically.

Provenance and Attribution

Curators rarely know the entire provenance of an artwork, but some provenances are more complete than others, like this Double Head attributed to Francesco Primaticcio. Several illustrious collectors owned it, including King Louis XIV, financier Pierre Crozat, and author Quintin Craufurd.

Two heads attached at the back, looking in opposite directions.

Double Head, about 1543, attributed to Francesco Primaticcio. Bronze, 15 ¼ × 13 ¾ x 8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.45. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

A strong pedigree confirms the significance of an artwork and adds depth to its history. Craufurd’s ownership tells us something important about what influences provenance. At some point in the 1700s, the sculpture was misattributed as a Roman antiquity, rather than a Renaissance sculpture. This might explain why Craufurd, who mainly collected antiquities, acquired the sculpture. This story shows some of the many factors that can affect the provenance of an artwork.

It’s a lot of work to dig up documentation and do the research, but it has great rewards as the information adds to our knowledge of art history and helps scholars and researchers working in this field. Provenance information for many artworks appears on the Getty’s online collection pages, so check it out if you’d like to learn more!