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 an artifact as well as the sequence of changes in possession and ownership. Reconstructing a continuous chain of custody for an art object whenever possible is no less important than accurate dating and attribution.

ICOM Code of Ethics and Washington Principles

In conformance with the ICOM Code of Ethics, the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung, the public art collection of Basel, and its advisory board of trustees regard the commitment to an honest and transparent approach to the history of its holdings as a moral obligation and standard of scholarly excellence. The museum has also pledged to adhere to the Washington Principles. Released in 1998 and adopted by 44 countries, the Washington Principles affirm the signatories’ commitment to proactively and vigilantly assist in the identification of Nazi-looted art as well as forced sales executed under pressure from the Nazi regime in Germany and the German-occupied areas.

The Department of Provenance Research

In 2019, the Kunstmuseum Basel, with support from the Ernst Göhner Foundation, started building a department of provenance research to conduct extensive research into the provenance of the works in the museum’s collection. First priority is given to shedding light on the histories of works of art in the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel that were created before 1945 and entered the collection after 1933. Another important responsibility of the new department is to respond to 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 archive. Consultation with other departments within the Kunstmuseum and the ongoing exchange of ideas and information with provenance researchers in Switzerland and abroad, including the participation in the activities of the Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung Schweiz and the international Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e.V., are likewise important aspects of its mission.

Narrating provenance

Provenance research is more than the compilation of a list of an object’s owners over time: it draws up a record of the social life with which art is bound up. The provenance research department seeks to explore the history of the Kunstmuseum Basel and its collection and shares its insights with the museum’s audience through a variety of formats.

Information on the provenance of works of art is drawn from a wide variety of historical documents: from collection inventories and purchase receipts to exhibition and auction catalogues, correspondences, and news reports. This rich source material is ultimately condensed to obtain a terse list of an object’s previous owners; in many instances, gaps in the chronology remain. Such provenance gaps are revealing, often reflecting dramatic shifts in the global balance of power. When works of art changed hands during the Nazi era, every effort should be made to determine the precise circumstances in which a transaction took place. This research can be time-consuming, and some questions defy the most tenacious scholarly investigation and may never be resolved, unless missing sources will be located in the future: that, too, is one of the challenges of provenance research.

Current projects

• 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)
(-> to the projects)

Completed projects

• Acquisitions of the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel between 1933 and 1945 (paintings and sculptures). Provenance research, documentation, and publication project (2016–2018) (-> to the project)
• Agreement in the Curt Glaser case
(-> to the project)

Contact

Dr. Anita Haldemann, Head a.i.

Dr. Joanna Smalcerz,
Research Assistant
joanna.smalcerz@bs.ch

Dr. Katharina Georgi,
Research Assistant
katharina.georgi@bs.ch

Lena Lehmann,
Research Assistant
lena.lehmann@bs.ch

Vanessa von Kolpinski,
Research Assistant
vanessa.vonkolpinski@bs.ch