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Nazi-Era Provenance Research

What Is Provenance?

Provenance literally means origin. In reference to a work of art, it involves tracing the history of ownership from its present location back to its creation by the artist. This type of research has always been an integral part of a museum’s responsibility to establish authenticity, historical importance, and legitimacy of ownership. Provenance information is rarely complete (especially in the case of objects of significant age), and it is often impossible to establish an unbroken history for an object, in spite of a researcher’s dedication to the task.

The Hood seeks to be fully transparent about the origins of works in the museum’s collection.

The Problem

The systematic pillaging of Europe that was sponsored by the National Socialists during World War II included seizure of public and private cultural treasures, especially works of art. Hundreds of thousands of objects were stolen, seized, or sold under duress by agents of the Third Reich from roughly 1933 to 1945. Moreover, Adolf Hitler and his lieutenants held Old Master paintings in particularly high regard and often secured the finest examples of European art for a planned museum in Linz, Austria, or else kept these works for their own private collections. Works of art were even used as monetary assets in the Third Reich’s financial exchanges with other entities, further contributing to the movement of confiscated artistic property throughout the world.

After 1945, extensive efforts were made by Allied forces to return looted objects to their respective countries of origin. Still, many American museums unknowingly acquired confiscated works of art at auction, through galleries, or by gift in the decades after World War II. In the past several years, there has been a renewed attempt by museums to investigate fully their collections for questionable gaps in the provenance of European paintings, sculptures, and drawings. In 1999, the American Association of Museums published its Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era. The Hood Museum of Art is currently working to implement these guidelines through extensive research and the creation of a completely searchable list of European works of art in its collections. In so doing, we will undoubtedly learn more about the history of objects in our care, even if we do not identify any works of art that were in fact looted by the Nazis.

Our Research Guidelines and Methods

Works that are investigated for possible Nazi-era provenance problems are those that were created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932, that underwent a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946, and that were (or might reasonably be thought to have been) in continental Europe between those dates. The Hood Museum of Art is actively examining provenance gaps and ambiguities for all of the European paintings, sculptures, drawings, and Judaica that fit these criteria in its collection. This is an ongoing procedure that involves consulting published sources as well as Internet databases, archival records, and correspondence with scholars, previous owners, and art dealers.

World War II Provenance Research: Related Publications

  • Hector Feliciano. The Lost Museum. New York, 1997.
  • Michael Kurtz. Nazi Contraband: American Policy on the Return of European Cultural Treasures, 1945–1955. New York, 1985.
  • Lynn H. Nicholas. The Rape of Europa. New York, 1994.
  • Jonathan Petropoulos. Art as Politics in the Third Reich. Durham, N.C., 1996.
  • Jonathan Petropoulos. The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. New York, 2000.
  • Elizabeth Simpson, ed. The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath; The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property. New York, 1997.

Provenance Inquiries

If you have any information or general questions concerning the works displayed on the website, please contact us at [email protected]. Please send specific provenance inquiries to Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 6 East Wheelock Street, Hanover, NH, 03755.

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