Digital Edition Cover Story: Uncovering Art’s Dark Past
While attending a major art fair, a representative of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) , was offered the chance to purchase a 17th century German pendant. The piece had already been sold three times in the 20th century, and it had been vetted through a major stolen-art database. But before the museum bought the piece, Victoria Reed, the MFA’s Monica S. Sadler Curator for Provenance, dug a bit deeper and found that it had been stolen in World War II from a museum in Gotha, Germany. Instead of being sold, the pendant was restituted back to the museum by the art dealer.
Provenance has long been a part of museums and art history, says Nancy Yeide, head of curatorial records at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. But over time, the bar has been raised. After 1970, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a convention to address the threat of illegally obtained archeological artifacts, museums had to apply more stringent acquisition standards to those objects, according to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR).
Then in 1998, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD)  released its first Nazi-era provenance research guidelines, which member museums were to follow. “With the lifting of the Iron Curtain some 10 years prior, a wealth of new information started to come to light, enabling museums, independent scholars, and claimants to initiate intensive research into works stolen by the Nazis,” says AAMD’s Christine Anagnos.
Liability. Museums can be subject to restitution claims and legal liable if they are found to hold stolen art in their collections. The J. Paul Getty Museum in California has received much publicity for having to give up more than 40 ancient art items that were illegally procured by a prior owner. In some cases, there was reported evidence that the pieces were suspect, but the museum acquired them anyway. Getty is not alone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the MFA are among other museums that have had to return items.
Risk assessment. It’s not always easy for a museum to be sure the art has a clean bill of health. The perfect provenance history would provide a documentary record of owners’ names, dates of ownership, and means of transference (such as inheritance or sale through auction), and locations where the work was kept from the time of its creation by the artist until the present day, according to the IFAR provenance guide. But such full detail is often impossible.
Reed says that researchers gather what information they can and basically offer the decision-makers a risk assessment. If there are missing periods in the art’s provenance, Reed and her team cite that in their assessment.
Often Nazi era provenance is quite straightforward, says Reed, because both the Nazis and the Allied Forces kept records. “So sometimes, it’s quite easy with a trip to the [U.S.] National Archives or, increasingly now, using online resources to track the movement of a work of art during the World War II period,” says Reed.
But it can be trickier. “When you’re dealing with private transactions, something that was sold from one individual to another, perhaps there is no paper trail. Perhaps there’s no receipt. And you may be missing some of the critical data points that you really like in order to establish the provenance of the work of art,” he says.
When dealing with excavations, museums need to assess whether anything was illegally excavated or looted, says Reed. The UNESCO convention spotlights this issue, and according to IFAR, AAMD member museums now have a mandate to determine whether an object was outside its country of discovery before 1970 or was legally exported after 1970.
Special considerations apply to ritual objects. “With Native American acquisitions, we need to be careful that we’re not acquiring anything that could be subject to Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. We don’t want to acquire anything that has been illegally imported or illegally exported. So, there’s a whole variety of risk factors that we try to keep track of,” Reed says.
Some of the latest looting reports have come from the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Most of the items looted from the museums have records and photographs, so if they do surface, provenance might not be as difficult as with pieces stolen earlier or pieces taken directly from archeological sites.
Resources. The road that a provenance researcher takes is determined by how much information he or she receives on the item at the start. “Sometimes, it’s just the name of the previous owner; sometimes, there’s a reasonable provenance history to the piece that just needs to be fleshed out a little bit. It’s a pretty broad range of amounts of information,” says Sarah Lees, associate curator of European art for the Sterling and Francine Clarke Art Institute  in Massachusetts.
There are traditional avenues of research for provenance curation, such as museum libraries, art catalogs, scholarly publications, and photo galleries. These days, there is also the Internet. Lees says that she will often turn to Google and family history searches.
For Nazi-era provenance research, there are some specific archives available, says Yeide. She names the National Archives’ World War II looting archive as a major resource. She also cites the National Archives in Germany, as well as archives in formerly occupied countries such as France.
Provenance research is extremely labor intensive work because of its international nature and because it often requires on-site visits, says Yeide. However, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., is ahead of the game when it comes to record digitization, she notes. Another electronic resource is The Art Loss Register.
The public can also be a resource, and the Internet facilitates public outreach. “A lot of the attention to Nazi-era and World War II provenance research in the late 1990s and early 2000s dovetailed with the rise of the Internet. So, Web sites have become a primary means for museums to disseminate information about provenance,” says Reed.
Reed cites a painting the museum returned to Poland as an example where public input on the Internet was integral. The museum knew that the painting had been in a Polish collection at the turn of the 20th century, but it was not until they put the name of the known owner online that his granddaughter found it and contacted the museum through the Polish embassy and made a claim for the painting.
In another instance, a family changed their name when they immigrated to the United States. MFA had a painting that had belonged to a relative who had been a German art dealer. When the museum went public with the missing aspects of the painting’s provenance, the family learned about it and was able to reach out to the museum and get it back.
Not every claim for restitution is legitimate, of course. Provenance research can also help a museum fight false claims.
There is always more for provenance researchers to look at, particularly the items that have been in the museum collections for years. “That work is ongoing. And it’s never done,” Reed says.