A Guide to Provenance Research at the Archives of American Art

World War II Era Provenance Research

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. 

Storage room filled with crates of recovered artwork at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point in Germany, 1946. James Rorimer papers, Archives of American Art.
Storage room filled with crates of recovered artwork at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point in Germany, 1946. James Rorimer papers, Archives of American Art.

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 (opens in new window) where users can link to even more external online resources, and the Getty Provenance Index (opens in new window). These guides can assist researchers in locating 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.