The study of provenance—the history of ownership of a work of art—has a long tradition as a methodology of art history. Scholars and curators undertake provenance research to gain deeper understanding of objects and their ownership paths, and to better comprehend the historical, social, and economic context in which artworks were created, collected, and through which they changed hands over time. Provenance research can be a means to establish the pedigree of an artwork, or to securely establish the identity and authenticity of a specific work.
Provenance research relies upon documentary and archival resources, and the extensive and multi-dimensional collections of the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution provide some of the most fruitful resources anywhere for documenting the history of European art collecting and for American and international provenance studies. The breadth and extraordinary depth of detail found in the Archives’ holdings of dealer, art historian, artist, collector, and gallery correspondence, stock inventories, estate records, oral histories, sales ledgers, photographic images, as well as exhibition and bibliographic materials, offers remarkable opportunities for provenance research and scholarship. The Archives holds the largest collection of art gallery records anywhere in the world, currently nearly 200 individual archival collections, and offers researchers a unique opportunity to consult multiple resources at one repository.
Researchers can use the Archives’ collections to analyze shifts in collecting tastes and market variations over many decades of the 20th century, as well as compare European and American viewpoints. The Archives’ resources reveal who owned what artwork, who put an artwork on the market, when that happened, and where it happened. Moreover, these rich paths of discovery are found and validated in interconnected and related collections.
From the time of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to end of World War II in 1945, the Nazi regime orchestrated an unprecedented system of confiscation and coercive transfer of art and cultural property across Europe. Through the extraordinary post-war efforts of the Monuments Men unit (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section) of the U.S. Army, a significant proportion of looted and displaced works were returned after the war to their rightful owners or heirs.
However, as the provenance of numerous works could not be fully determined in the post-war chaos, some works were returned to the country of origin of the art, and other works remained in storage as heirless or as “origin unknown.” Additionally, there were countless artworks that had been sold or transferred during or after the war through private sales in the international art market, often without the knowledge of their prior owners. Many of these works were not subject to restitution or compensation claims.
By the late 1990s, a new focus emerged on art losses during the Nazi era. Around 1998, the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets highlighted the need for achieving provenance clarity for U.S. and international public art collections. Museums in the U.S. and abroad began closer examination of the provenance paths of works in their collections and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) issued “Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era” and the "Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era (1933–1945)" concerning objects in museum collections that may have been illegally confiscated and/or sold during the World War II era.
Under these recommendations, museums were called to identify works in their collections that were created before 1946 and acquired after 1932; underwent change of ownership between 1933 and 1945; and were, or might reasonably be thought to have been, in continental Europe between those years. Museums were also urged to make all currently available information accessible online to aid the discovery and identification of any objects that may have been unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era and not subsequently restored to the rightful owners or their heirs.
Thus, a new area of specialized provenance research has emerged as museums and public collections seek to ascertain if their collections included works of art that may have been sold, purchased, or looted during the Nazi era, and to resolve open ownership issues. Such research can be a continuous and ongoing process—complex, difficult and labor intensive, and, despite best interests, sometimes frustrating, as the full succession of ownership cannot always be entirely reconstructed. And, it is almost certain that the research will require consulting multiple archival collections in multiple repositories, both in private and public institutions scattered across the United States and Europe. After repositories and individual collections have been identified and located, research will entail sifting through hundreds, if not thousands, of cubic feet of archival documents, to track and validate the path of ownership. Where does one start?
Guides exist, both in print and online, for provenance research, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Provenance Research Initiative website where users can link to even more external online resources, and the Getty Provenance Index. These guides can assist researchers locate relevant holdings found in repositories across the world.
Additional guidance, however, is necessary to navigate large and complex archival collections. Most repositories will have detailed finding aids, many available online, that serve as maps to individual archival collections. Finding aids will assist users to more fully understand the context of the collection’s creation, the history of the creating body, the scope of information within the collection, how the collection is arranged both physically and intellectually, and, sometimes information about what is not found within the collection. Moreover, finding aids will provide details about unique characteristics associated with the records of individual galleries, such as numbering code schemas for gallery stock, filing systems, the types of documentation found within the collection, how records are named and defined—for example, what is a “fiche” and what kind of information does it hold? Finding aids may also show where these documents and information intersect. Finding aids lead users down additional pathways of discovery—within individual collections, across multiple collections, and to other repositories.
The archival records and papers of Jacques Seligmann & Co., Perls Galleries, Schaeffer Galleries, World House Galleries, the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, George Stout, Thomas Carr Howe, S. Lane Faison, James Rorimer, J. B. Neumann, Perry Townsend Rathbone, and Victor Spark are but a few of the collections among the holdings of the Archives of American Art that have become essential tools for provenance research.
Without a doubt, one of the Archives’ richest resources for art provenance research are the extensive gallery records (203 linear feet) of the Jacques Seligmann & Co., which were fully digitized in 2010 with funding provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art. The Seligmann gallery records can provide us with many examples of provenance reseach methodologies.
Jacques Seligmann & Co., Inc., established in Paris in 1880, with a second location opening in New York in 1904, was one of the top dealers in antiquities and decorative arts and one of the first galleries to create a market for contemporary European art. The company's clients included the prominent European art collectors Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France, the Stroganoff family of Russia, Sir Philip Sassoon of England, and American collectors Benjamin Altman, William Randolph Hearst, J. P. Morgan, Henry Walters, and Joseph Widener. The art that passed through Seligmann often ended up in the collections of major American and European museums through the donations of the wealthy benefactors who purchased them from the company. For decades Jacques Seligmann & Co., Inc., placed significant works of art in important private and public collections in Europe and the U.S.
The Jacques Seligmann gallery records provide users with a unique opportunity for extensive mining of documentary evidence. The records are comprehensive, complete, complex, and multi-layered. Users can trace and compare references to sales and purchases across multiple types of documentation, such as correspondence and collectors’ files, sales receipts, ledgers, consular invoices, inventory lists, exhibition records, inter-office memoranda, and auction records. Users can trace provenance paths with multiple intersections by searching for the names of collectors, dealers, or major clients with whom a work of art passed hands, and by geographic locations of sales, inventory/stock numbers, artists’ names, dates of sales, consignment arrangements, and exhibition histories. However, the qualities that make the collection such a rich resource also make it challenging to use. Provenance paths can be obscured by the sheer volume of materials and the types of information found within. Users will very quickly lose their way without the finding aid available online.
Nearly 100 linear feet of correspondence are arranged primarily by name and document sales, purchases, liquidations, transactions, and relationships with nearly every major collector, dealer, auction house, and gallery in both the U.S. and Europe between 1913 and 1978.
For example, the gallery correspondence contains some of the only known documentation about the resolution of the Estate of Alfred Flechtheim, in papers concerning a painting by Picasso owned in shares between Seligmann, Flechtheim, and another dealer. Correspondence between Seligmann and the Estate over some ten years provides important insight into the complexity of the Estate resolution and the thoroughness with which the Estate attorneys pursued inheritance and ownership issues concerning this German émigré dealer who had fled Nazi Germany. The earlier ownership history of the same Picasso is referenced in correspondence between Flechtheim, Alfred Barr, and J. B. Neumann in the J. B. Neumann Papers at AAA and is a good example of the inter-connectedness of the Archives’ holdings.
Thirty-five linear feet of collectors’ files provide documentation about the collections of the most important art collectors and existing or potential clients across America and Europe. For example, the notebook “Old Collectors of Interest,” lists prominent collectors and the works of art they purchased, by name of artist, title of the work, from whom they acquired the work, medium, date, and dimensions.
Financial and stock records are extraordinarily rich with information about sales, inventory, and purchases. For example the financial records of the Seligmann gallery include the consular invoices of the American Consulate General in Paris and Brussels that declare ownership in relation to tariffs and exporting works of art. These official government documents detail works of art exported to the United States (or other countries) by Jacques Seligmann & Co., between 1920 and 1953. Many of the forms provide valuable provenance information, such as physical description (often in great detail), age, from whom acquired, date of acquisition, assessed market value, and shipping dates and means of shipping.
There are numerous types of account books, sales ledgers, combined ledgers, client transaction ledgers, daily transaction journals, loose and bound invoices, receipts, consignment invoices, etc., all of which record and cross reference sales, purchases, provenance, prices, clients, and shared commission sales with other dealers.
For example, the “price quote notebooks” found among the financial records contain Germain Seligman's records of "sales calls," that include commentary and notes about clients and their collecting interests. Many of the invoice books, account books and ledgers provide information about individual sales to clients as well as gallery purchases. Most of the sales ledgers can be accessed by transaction date or name of client and cross-referenced with one another, and most transactions also note stock inventory numbers. A group of “purchase receipts” are particularly useful and provide a fairly complete set of information about the firm's purchases, such as the 1937 acquisition of Madame Jacques Doucet's collection of Picassos, which included Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The purchase receipts also document complex joint ownerships and sales of artwork on consignment from other galleries—relationships often not easily discovered in other types of documentation.
Most of the financial records can be further cross referenced and validated with the correspondence files.
Jacques Seligmann, Inc. was a large gallery and had several subsidiaries throughout the firm’s history, including the Gersel Corporation, Modern Paintings, Inc., and de Hauke and Co. Some of these corporations were buying and selling artwork immediately following the war, and provenance researchers should not overlook the sales and purchase records of the transactions of any subsidiary. In some cases, those records may be arranged separately from the parent gallery, and other times the records will be intertwined.
The stock and inventory records of any gallery will be the most direct path to tracking the provenance of artwork and the Seligmann records contain numerous sets of stock records, including bound and loose stock and inventory catalogs, lists, and a photographic negative file of inventory. Inventory catalogs are arranged by location, inventory number, genre, and ownership. The finding aid reveals that some of the catalogs have overlapping information, as well as missing inventory numbers. Users can check the inventory numbers against other records in other series because most of the gallery records note the inventory numbers, including much of the correspondence. Users should also check the inventory lists of any of the subsidiary companies and again look for intersections and cross references with the financial records of both the subsidiary and parent company.
The Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records are another valuable archival collection at the Archives of American Art for establishing pre-Nazi era provenance for many European works of art and provide a remarkable overview of German avant-garde collectors in the 1930s. For example, the records contain a list of German collectors of modern art around 1930, penned by Carnegie International Berlin-based consultant, Charlotte Weidler, for an upcoming visit by the director of the Carnegie to Germany. Additionally, Weidler’s correspondence with Carnegie throughout the 1930s provides unique insight and detail about the situation of artists in Nazi Germany, and about matters of degenerate art(1). Weidler’s correspondence with Carnegie president Homer St. Gaudens is an extraordinary source of information for provenance researchers about the location of artwork pre-war and the changing attitude towards modern art in Germany as the Nazis rose to power. A portion of the Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records have been digitized and are available online. The bulk of the records are available in the Archives’ reading room in Washington, D.C.
Users will find World War II era provenance documentation in the records of Perls Galleries, founded by dealer Klaus Perls (1912–2008) in New York in 1937. The gallery promoted contemporary French artists of the School of Paris, and later acted as the primary representative of Alexander Calder. Before moving to New York in 1935, Perls worked for his mother, Kaethe Perls, in her Paris gallery. After World War II, with the expansion of the international art market, Klaus Perls made frequent buying trips to Europe. The Perls Galleries continued to sell primarily contemporary French art and gained an early reputation as a champion of modern art by European artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Léger, Soutine and Pascin. Klaus was named as a third-party defendant in the 1969 World War II looted art case Menzel v. List. When Erna Menzel sued Albert List for ownership of a Chagall painting confiscated from Menzel by the Nazis, List in turn sued Perls, who had sold him the painting in 1955, having purchased it himself from an art dealer in Paris. The court awarded the Chagall painting to Menzel and ordered Perls to pay List the appreciated value of the painting.
Perls Galleries’ records are comprised primarily of correspondence documenting exhibitions, loans, sales, and administrative affairs. Correspondence is with artists, galleries, museums, collectors, and dealers, among others. Significant correspondents include artists Darrell Austin, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Karl Priebe; galleries such as the Corcoran Gallery, Fujikawa Galleries, Galerie Maeght, and the Pierre Matisse Gallery; museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum of Modern Art; collectors such as Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz, Adelaide de Ménil, Valentine Dudensing, and Henry Ford, II; and celebrity clients such as Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Henry and Clare Booth Luce, and Barbra Streisand. Many of the correspondence files also include copies of invoices for artwork sold and occasional provenance information, useful to supplement the relatively small amount of sales records in the collection.
In 2012, the Archives of American Art received a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to support a major project to preserve, process, and create Web-searchable online finding aids for eleven collections that are valuable archival resources for World War II era art provenance research. Collections processed for this project include the personal archives of World War II Monuments Men S. Lane Faison, Walter Horn, Thomas Carr Howe, James J. Rorimer, George Leslie Stout and Otto Wittmann, as well as the papers of art historians/curators Perry Townsend Rathbone and J. B. Neumann. The records of Schaeffer Galleries and World House Galleries were also processed, and those of art dealer Victor Spark. This project builds on the success of the earlier Kress support for the digitization of the Jacques Seligmann & Co. records. The Kress Foundation also provided support to develop this webpage devoted to provenance research at the Archives.
Detailed finding aids for all of these collections are now available on the Archives’ website, providing researchers with much expanded content information, box and folder inventories, and links to related collections and oral histories. Select items have been digitized from nearly all of the collections and are available online, and the papers of New York City art dealer Victor D. Spark have been digitized in their entirety.
The personal papers of Monuments Men S. Lane Faison, Walter Horn, Thomas Carr Howe, James J. Rorimer, George Leslie Stout and Otto Wittmann provide users a unique perspective on the activities of this extraordinary group of art historians and war heroes tasked with protecting cultural monuments during the war, and later with locating, identifying, and attempting to return to their rightful owners the massive quantities of art and artifacts that were looted by Nazis.
The official record of the work of the Monuments Men is documented in the federal government records found in the U.S. at the National Archives, at the National Archives in Koblenz and Berlin, and among French, Dutch, Austrian repositories. Additional Monuments Men (and Women) papers are found in private repositories as well, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The papers at the Archives of American Art, however, illuminate a more personal perspective and provide researchers with a comparative resource to better contextualize the role of American art historians and conservators in the war years and their aftermath.
Collections with new finding aids available online also include the Perry Townsend Rathbone papers, which provide important archival documentation about his role as a curator and museum director in Detroit, St. Louis, and Boston, as a close friend and associate of major art dealers such as German émigrés William R. Valentiner and Curt Valentin, and as an advisor and consultant to American collectors such as Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., and David Rockefeller. The papers include materials about the relationship between Rathbone and artists such as Max Beckmann, as well as letters between Rathbone and modern art advocate Curt Valentin. In his letters to Rathbone, Valentin writes at length about his adjustment to the United States after he left Nazi Germany in 1937, and his work at the Buchholz Gallery in New York, which he later renamed the Curt Valentin Gallery. The Jacques Seligmann gallery records also contain documentation of sales and purchase transactions with Curt Valentin. Also found is an additional related collection, Legal Records Relating to the Estate of Mathilde Beckmann.
The records of dealers and galleries recently processed include those of J. B. Neumann, Victor D. Spark, Schaeffer Galleries, and World House Galleries. They provide information about the American art market during the 1920s to the 1960s. Many of these dealers were émigrés from Europe. The records contain sales ledgers, stockbooks, correspondence, business records, photographs of works of art and exhibitions, as well as printed materials such as brochures and exhibition catalogs, many of which are rare.
The Schaeffer Galleries had been in operation in Berlin, Germany from 1925 to 1939, and in New York from 1936 to 2000. When Hanns S. and Kate Schaeffer left Nazi Germany and moved permanently in the U.S., they specialized in Old Master paintings and drawings and became central figures in the American art trade for more than 50 years in one location on Park Avenue in New York City.
J. B. Neumann arrived in the United States in the 1920s and founded the New Art Circle Gallery in New York City. Before then, he had art galleries in Berlin, Munich, Dusseldorf, and Bremen, Germany. In addition to scattered professional and personal correspondence with artists, museums, and galleries, such as Josef Albers, Leonard Baskin, Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Abraham Rattner, and Georges Rouault, the J. B. Neumann papers include catalogs from both the New Art Circle Gallery and the World House Galleries, further evidence of the close relationships among many of the art dealers during the 1930s through the 1950s. Exploring these sometimes complex interrelated business relationships as documented in multiple collections often results in more fruitful research results and provenance information than can be found in just one collection, or in just one repository. For example, J.B. Neumann papers are also found in the Museum of Modern Art archives.
Another case in point is the provenance research on Paul Klee’s painting Pierrette among the records of World House Galleries. From 1959 to 1972, the gallery researched the provenance of the painting, disclosing their findings to potential donors. The Klee painting’s provenance and authenticity is also referenced in the correspondence of German modern art expert Charlotte Weidler, found in the Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records as well as correspondence in the J. B. Neumann papers. The weight of archival evidence found in three different but related collections helps validate the provenance of this work of art.
The Victor D. Spark papers are an excellent overall resource for provenance research and are distinguished by their depth and detail. Spark was one of the foremost American art dealers in antiquities and decorative arts, and among the first to foster and support the growth and appreciation for collecting in the field of contemporary European art. His clients included major American and European art collectors, as well as public institutions. The Spark papers include a wealth of artist correspondence, client correspondence, and meticulous financial records and stock and sales ledgers. The entire collection has been digitized through the Kress grant, dramatically increasing access for art provenance research. Also among the holdings of the Archives is an un-transcribed oral history interview with Victor Spark conducted in 1975.
These newly-processed and digitized collections are merely a sample of the types of materials, paths of research, and archival collections among the Archives’ holdings that will prove indispensable for World War II era art provenance research. While each collection is different, both in content and types of records, they are often related to one another and complement the official records found in the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and in repositories across Europe, as well as other significant holdings of gallery records, such as those found at the Getty Research Institute and the National Gallery of Art Archives.
- Jacques Seligmann & Co. records, 1904-1978, bulk 1913-1974 (203 linear feet)
Art gallery; Paris and New York, NY; established in 1880 and closed in 1978.
- Perls Galleries records, 1937-1997 (79.7 linear feet)
Art gallery; New York, N.Y.; established in 1937 and closed in 1997.
- Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art records, 1883-1962, bulk 1885-1940 (264.3 linear feet)
Museum; Pittsburg, Pa.
- Schaeffer Galleries records, circa 1921-1982 (1.6 linear feet)
Art gallery; operated in Berlin, 1925–1939 and in New York from 1936 to the 1990s.
- World House Galleries records, 1927-1991, bulk 1953-1980 (9.8 linear feet)
Art gallery; New York, N.Y. Est. 1953, closed 1968.
- S. Lane Faison papers, 1922–1981, bulk 1950-1976 (5.1 linear feet)
Monuments Men; art historian; director of the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass.
- Walter Horn papers, 1908-1992, bulk 1943-1950 (2.7 linear feet)
Monuments Men; art historian; Berkeley, California.
- Thomas Carr Howe papers, 1932–1984 (4.4 linear feet)
Monument Men; arts administrator, arts consultant; California.
- J. B. (Jsrael Ber) Neumann papers, 1905–1967 (2.1 linear feet)
Gallery directory, dealer, publisher; New York, N.Y.
- Perry Townsend Rathbone papers, 1929–1985 (4.3 linear feet)
Museum director; New York, N.Y., St. Louis, Boston.
- James J. Rorimer papers, 1921–1982, bulk 1943-1950 (2.3 linear feet)
Monuments Men; museum director and art historian; New York, N.Y.
- Victor D. Spark papers, circa 1840s–1983 (19.4 linear feet)
Art dealer, art gallery; New York, N.Y.
- George Leslie Stout papers, 1855, 1897–1978 (5.8 linear feet)
Monuments Men; art conservator, museum director; Mass. and California.
- Otto Wittmann papers, 1932-1996 (10.1 linear feet)
Monuments Men; museum director and art historian; Toledo, Ohio.
- Oral history interview with Stanton L. Catlin, 1989 July 1-September 14
Transcript: 277 pages. Duration is 13 hr., 30 min. Transcripts have been heavily edited by the interviewees; researchers may wish to consult the sound recordings along with the transcript. An interview of Stanton Catlin conducted 1989 July 1-September 14, by Francis V. O'Connor, for the Archives of American Art; includes references to Rose Valland.
- Oral history interview with Klaus G. Perls, 1993 Jan. 19
Transcript: 17 p. Duration is 46 min. An interview of Klaus G. Perls conducted 1993 Jan. 19, by Mona Hadler, for the Archives of American Art. Perls discusses his childhood in Germany, selling paintings that his mother sent to him from Paris to N.Y. art dealers, establishing Perls Galleries in 1937, representing European artists such as Maurice Utrillo, Marie Laurencin, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck, and the art world of the 1930s and 1940s.
- Oral history interview with S. Lane Faison, 1981 December 14
Transcript: 96 pages. Duration is 4 hr., 40 min. An interview of S. Lane Faison conducted 1981 December 14, by Robert F. Brown, for the Archives of American Art. Faison discusses his activities during World War II teaching aircraft and ship recognition, gathering information related to art looted by the Nazis, preparing a report that described how Hitler's art collection was formed, and the distribution of unclaimed furniture.
- Oral history interview with Walker Hancock, 1977 July 22-August 15
Transcript: 125 p. Duration is 6 hr., 5 min. An interview of Walker Hancock conducted 1977 July 22-August 25, by Robert Brown, for the Archives of American Art. Hancock references locating the repositories of art looted by the Nazis.
- Oral history interview with Thomas Carr Howe, 1976 June 2-3
Transcript: 53 p. Duration is 3 hr., 37 min. An interview of Thomas Carr Howe conducted 1976 June 2-3, by Paul J. Karlstrom, for the Archives of American Art.
Howe speaks of his service in World War II in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the U.S. Army, where he worked closely with George Stout recovering stolen artwork in the salt mines at Alt Aussee.
- Oral history interview with Charles Parkhurst, 1982 October 27
Transcript: 16 p. Duration is 1 hr., 27 min. An interview of Charles Parkhurst conducted 1982 October 27, by Buck Pennington, for the Archives of American Art.
- Oral history interview with Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, 1977 June 16-17
Transcript: 64 p. Duration is 3 hr., 57 min. An interview of Andrew Carnduff Ritchie conducted 1977 June 16-17, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art. Ritchie talks about the highlights of his MFAA experiences, especially the fate of the “Czernin Vermeer” and his experience transporting the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire from Nuremberg to Vienna.
- Oral history interview with George Leslie Stout, 1978 March 10-21
Transcript: 59 p. Duration is 2 hr., 45 min. An interview of George Leslie Stout conducted 1978 March 10-21, by Paul Karlstrom, for the Archives of American Art. Stout speaks of his experience as Arts and Monument officer in Europe, including the recovery work at Altausee.
- Oral history interview with Otto Wittmann, 1976 August 19-20
Transcript: 124 p. Duration is 4 hr., 41 min. An interview of Otto Wittmann conducted 1976 August 19-20, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art. Wittman discusses his work during World War II in the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the U. S. Office of Strategic Services.
- Oral history interview with Otto Wittmann, 1981 October 25
Transcript: 42 p. Duration is 1 hr., 44 min. An interview of Otto Wittmann conducted 1981 October 25, by Thomas Carr Howe, for the Archives of American Art. Wittman discusses his work during World War II in the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the U. S. Office of Strategic Services.