What is provenance?
The term “provenance” (from the Latin provenire, to come forth, originate) denotes the origin or source of a person or object. Art experts use it to designate the succession of documented holders or owners of a cultural asset as well as the sequence of changes in possession and ownership. Reconstructing an unbroken chain of custody for an artifact whenever possible is no less important than accurate dating and attribution to a creator.
As a signatory to the Washington Principles adopted in 1998, Switzerland pledged itself to a systematic study of the provenance of the artifacts held in its public collections. In undertaking this research, Swiss institutions not only face up to a sometimes difficult past and reaffirm their commitment to cooperation with the international community; they also seize an opportunity to gain a better understanding of their own histories and gather important insights.
The provenance investigations department
In 2019, the Kunstmuseum Basel, with support from the Ernst Göhner Foundation, started building a provenance investigations department to conduct extensive research into the provenance of the works in the museum’s collection. First priority is given to shedding light on the provenance of works of art in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, the public art collection of Basel, that were created before 1945 and entered the collection after 1933. The new department also addresses external inquiries concerning the collection, e. g., in connection with loans of works to be exhibited at institutions abroad. It moreover plays a leading role in a thorough review of the internal institutional archive. Consultation with other divisions organized in the Kunstmuseum Basel’s provenance research working group and the ongoing exchange of ideas and information with provenance researchers in Switzerland and abroad (including by participating in the relevant Swiss and German professional associations) are important aspects of its mission.
Information on the provenance of works of art is drawn from various types of sources, ranging from collection inventories and sales receipts to exhibition catalogues, correspondence, and press reports. This rich and diverse information is ultimately compressed into—often incomplete—lists of previous owners. Gaps in chains of custody are revealing, in many instances suggesting the dramatic vicissitudes of rapid shifts in the global balance of power. In the case of artifacts that changed hands during the Nazi era or cultural assets that originated in colonial territories, provenance gaps can raise uncomfortable questions and ethical concerns.
That is why provenance research is ultimately more than the compilation of a terse listing of an object’s owners: it draws up a record of the social life with which art is bound up. The provenance investigations department seeks to probe the history of the Kunstmuseum Basel and the aspects of the collection’s history associated with it and will share this history with the museum’s audience through a variety of educational formats.
The department currently conducts the following projects, supported by third-party funding, on provenance during the Nazi era:
• Provenance of the works acquired between 1946 and 1962 (paintings and sculptures). Research—documentation—publication (2019–2020)
• Drawings in the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel that entered the collection between 1933 and 1945. Provenance research, documentation, and publication project (2019–2020)
• Acquisitions of the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel between 1933 and 1945 (paintings and sculptures). Provenance research, documentation, and publication project (2016–2018) (-> Au projet)