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.
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.
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.
The Kunstmuseum Basel has adopted a strategy for provenance research in 2022. This sets out the general procedure, examination standards and the quality of scientific research on the objects. In accordance with the demands of, among others, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG), the museum recognizes not only Nazi looted art (cultural objects stolen under the influence of the National Socialists or sold under duress or at unfair prices) but also "Fluchtgut" (emigrants' sales of artworks in supposedly safe third countries outside the sphere of influence of the National Socialists) as property losses due to Nazi persecution. In the case of justified claims, the museum undertakes to seek "just and fair solutions" in accordance with the Washington Principles. In addition to restitution and compensation payments, these can also be found in exhibitions, publications or special labeling of the objects, which pay tribute to the former owners.
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