Provenance Research

Provenance Research

“Who owned this object before it entered our collection?” Collectors and museum employees have always questioned the origins of the objects in their collections. A "good provenance" (or "pedigree"), such as previously belonging to a famous collection, has always boosted the value and prestige of artworks and cultural artifacts.

Today, research into the past ownership of objects in collections is frequently conducted to clarify cases of illegal looting. The Nazi looting of art and cultural artifacts received international public attention following the discovery of spectacular artworks in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012 ("Schwabinger Kunstfund"). This in turn brought publicity to this particular branch of provenance research. In addition to the origins of paintings and sculptures, research is also conducted into the ownership history of books, archival materials, objects from the applied arts, and artifacts acquired in former colonial territories.

Black-and-white photo of a man in a suit holding a large Hanukkah menorah

A provenance research project of our museum dealt with the Judaica collection, the basis of which was collected by Zwi Sofer. Here he presents a large Hanukkah menorah from his collection. Photo location uncertain, taken in Lübeck, Duisburg, or Hanover in 1975; bequest of Zvi Sofer, Münster, photographer unknown

Provenance research is closely linked to the question of restitution. Under the Washington Declaration of 1998, public institutions are obligated to investigate whether or not their collections contain objects that were confiscated from their owners as a consequence of Nazi persecution, from 1933 to 1945. If so, the institution is obliged to determine the legal owners and to seek "a just and fair solution" with them.

A Jewish museum is regularly confronted with the issues of looting and destruction of Jewish cultural heritage, particularly with regard to collections. Such institutions are more likely to house Jewish historical objects that are connected to stories of looting or exile; that may have been damaged due to Nazi persecution; or that may be declared as "orphaned." Consequently, the 2009 Terezin Declaration focused specifically on the need to determine the provenance of Judaica and objects of Jewish cultural heritage.

As a result of our provenance research project on the collection of paintings and sculptures, Anton von Werner's oil study Das Gastmahl der Familie Mosse (The Mosse Family Banquet) could be restituted to the heirs of the legitimate owner in 2016; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe.

Jewish museums worldwide, such as the Jewish Museum of New York, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and the Jewish Museum of Prague, have developed provenance research projects. The Jewish Museum Berlin is one of a growing number of museums in Germany that systematically investigate the origins of the holdings in their collections.