What is provenance? Why is it important?
Provenance is the history of ownership of an artwork. An important component of art historical scholarship, provenance research provides insights into the cultural, political, religious, and economic roles of an art object at the time of its production and throughout its history. A complete provenance record, stretching back to the work’s creation, is useful for establishing the work’s value and authenticity, and for clarifying questions concerning its lawful ownership. However, it is very rare for works to have fully documented provenance histories.
In 2004, the Eskenazi Museum of Art began to systematically research the provenance of artworks that could have been in Europe during the Nazi era (1933–1945). During that time, Germany’s National Socialist government looted works of art from numerous Jewish collectors and art dealers in Germany and other countries under Nazi occupation. Synagogues, churches, and museums also lost many art objects during World War II. Despite major restitution efforts undertaken after the war, many looted works entered the art market and were subsequently acquired by collectors and museums. Since 1998, many museums have undertaken renewed efforts to research the Nazi-era provenance of their collections.
The Eskenazi Museum of Art is committed to researching the provenance histories of the European paintings, sculptures, drawings, and Judaica (Jewish ritual objects) in our collection that were created before 1946. Our goal is to ensure that we have not unwittingly acquired looted art, and to act in an ethical and responsible manner if we discover any problems with a work’s ownership history. Although a gap in provenance between 1933 and 1945 does not necessarily indicate that a work was looted, our research focuses on works with provenance gaps during that period. In the future, we hope to expand our provenance research efforts to other areas of our collections.