08 Apr 2020

The Department of Provenance Research at the Kunstmuseum Basel currently employs four academic staff, one of whom is full-time and three part-time, whose positions are largely financed by third-party funds. We have asked them about their work on the occasion of today's International Provenance Research Day.

What exactly does provenance research mean and why is it important?
Joanna Smalcerz: Provenance research is concerned with the history of past changes of ownership of art objects and cultural goods. It is important as the past of an art object can be very informative of an object itself, for instance, it can reveal that a now single painting originally formed part of an altarpiece. Crucial is the transparence of the ways art objects changed their owners and how they entered collections. Since works of art are generally highly valuable objects they are more likely to have been stolen, confiscated, sold under duress or illegally displaced. Provenance research reconstructs the trajectories of objects and the biographies of their owners to establish if their past is free of any injustice.

Why did you become a provenance researcher?
Vanessa von Kolpinski: Initially I sort of stumbled into it during my studies and an internship at Sotheby's in London. The reason why I stayed with it is the diversity of the disciplines: You don't just do research on an object as an art historian, you also deal with the history of collecting, with the historical structures in various countries during the Nazi era, and with socio-philosophical as well as economic and legal issues. I find that incredibly interesting!

Are you more of a lawyer or an art historian?
Lena Lehmann: An art historian. In provenance research, the question of right and wrong can first be put aside. It has no part in scientific research in the first place. Provenance researchers investigate historical facts in the service of truth. A legal judgement in the service of justice can also only be made on the basis of thoroughly clarified facts.

Is there a legally binding basis? International or Swiss?
Katharina Georgi-Schaub: The situation is not uniformly regulated internationally. A legally binding basis, which prescribes provenance research and consequently also regulates the question of restitution, exists, for example, in Austria with the Art Restitution Act, but not in Switzerland. In 1998, however, Switzerland, together with 44 other states, signed the Washington Declaration. With this declaration, the signatories committed themselves to active participation in the identification of Nazi looted property (i.e. research into its provenance) and to seeking "fair" and "just" solutions where looted or persecution-induced loss of cultural property was identified.

Are there any works on which you focus specifically? How are they selected?
JS: Generally the first pool of objects to be researched within a collection are works that entered the collection or changed their owners between 1933 and 1945, the time of the Nazi Regime, which saw an unprecedented scale of art looting, unlawful confiscation of private property and international illegal art trade. Within such pools works with Jewish owners and Nazi collaborators in their provenance require particularly diligent research. Works of some artists, for instance of the French Impressionists or Cubists might also be potentially problematic because when the Nazis came to power they were already reaching very high prices and were thus valuable assets during the war, prone to all sorts of illegal dealings.

How much time does the Department of Provenance Research invest in a work?
VK: That depends very much on the individual objects. Many provenances in a museum context can be quickly clarified by means of the internal documentation. However, establishing the history of a work for the period between 1933-1945 can take months, even years, or not succeed at all, especially in the case of works of art by international artists or acquired via the international market. All of this depends on access to archives, cooperation between researchers and the (non-existent) research context.

Has provenance research existed for a long time?
JS: Provenance research has been part of the research on works of art ever since art history was established as a discipline in the nineteenth century, as it is one of the ways to authenticate or attribute a work of art. A known provenance contributes to the value of an art object and for these reasons it has been part of collecting culture and has been in various degrees practiced within the art trade since the 17th century. Its new life and a significant rise in importance and institutional presence began with the 1998 Washington Principles and the international commitment to trace the art that by one way or another illegally changed hands during the time of the Nazi Regime.

Can provenance affect the value of an artwork?
JS: Yes, absolutely. It has consequences for the market value of artworks. For instance artworks with royal provenances have always been in bigger demand than others. The American nouveux riches tycoons of the late nineteenth century were looking for artworks stemming from the European royal and aristocratic houses, significantly driving their prices. In other words, collectors very often bought and still buy not only artists‘ names but also those of the artworks‘ owners to enhance their own status by showing that they buy into the same established good taste. It is a well-researched and described sociological phenomenon. On the other hand, now more than ever, a provenance featuring any kind of unlawful actions can annihilate the market value of an artwork.

Does provenance research have anything to do with morality?
LL: Especially with regard to the investigation of looted art, provenance research has a lot to do with morality. Morality is needed above all where the law does not quite reach. As Katharina has already said: in 1998, Switzerland, together with other states, agreed with the Washington Principles not on a legal basis but on "non-binding guidelines", which in the final analysis only point the way forward for the conduct of research and the finding of fair solutions by those involved. Only the concept of a "fair solution" is broadly defined and depends on the interpretation of the parties involved. The guidelines are thus an appeal to the morals of researchers, to the morals of museums and to the morals of the state, which often makes such research by museums financially possible in the first place.
In addition, provenance research is also a self-serving gain in knowledge and has become a good practice in the Swiss museum world.

How does provenance research differ between institutions?
VK: A distinction must be made between project work and permanent positions. In the case of temporary projects in museums and institutions, one can expect that work will be conducted under greater time pressure and that material that turns up only after the project has been completed may not be incorporated until later or not at all because the expertise is not permanently available at the institution. However, many in-depth research projects in this field are only possible with project funding, e.g. from the Federal Office of Culture (BAK), because the curators have limited capacities to engage with these time-consuming questions. Permanent positions in provenance research, on the other hand, naturally have the advantage that even lengthy research can be pursued with the necessary stamina and that museum-internal and overarching structures can more easily be made available for a wider community.

What are the most important sources?
KG: The most important source is the work itself, which must be looked at closely. Frequently, its verso holds valuable information on its origin, such as stamps, labels from galleries or exhibitions, old inventory numbers etc. – or even indicates that someone has tried to erase such information. At the same time, we are sifting through the documentation in our own archive: In addition to inventory books and cards, account books and correspondence; the minutes of the Board of Trustees, which discusses every purchase or acceptance of donations and bequests, are particularly informative. In addition, we research old auction and exhibition catalogues, and often our investigations also lead us to external archives. The fact that more and more finding aids and databases are now available online makes our work much easier.

What are the difficulties or challenges?
KG: Sometimes the first problem is to clearly identify a work. For example, if there are several title variants, if measurements are missing in old directories or if a work exists in several versions or copies. It is also an omnipresent challenge to weigh up where to spent time, because many efforts end in a cul-de-sac.
And: If we try to shed light on the ownership history of a work in the years between 1933 and 1945, then this time is not just two or three generations in the past. Rather, as has already been mentioned several times, we are possibly also dealing with the effects of a criminal regime, with war, persecution, flight, and an art market that functioned according to completely different rules under these conditions. We have to accept that many a crucial source has been lost here and that some pieces of the puzzle may never be revealed again.

If you are interested to learn more about provenance research, come back tomorrow and on Friday to read two case studies from our collection.