Nazi-Era Provenance Research

During the Second World War, the Nazis proactively and systematically confiscated hundreds of thousands (some estimates say 600,000) of works of art in Europe. These objects were stolen, or in some cases the owners were forced to sell them at a low price, by agents of the Third Reich from the time they gained power in 1933 to the end of the war in 1945. After the war, the allied forces, through the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Commission of the U.S. Army, with the help of U.S. museums and scholars, made great efforts to return these stolen and displaced objects to their countries of origin. Many eventually were restituted to their original owners. Even so, whether through auctions, dealers, or as gifts and bequests, museums may have unknowingly acquired works that had been confiscated by the Nazis, and for which proper restitution had not been made to the original owner or heir. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 works of art remain unaccounted for; some undoubtedly have been destroyed.

Charles P. Parkhurst (OC ’38), director of the AMAM from 1949-62, was one of the U.S. Army “Monuments Men” responsible for restoring art displaced during the 1933-45 period to its rightful owners, and the AMAM strives to continue his legacy through attentive provenance research on works in our collection.  (For more information on Parkhurst and his efforts in restitution, conservation, and museum reaccreditation, click here.)

Today there is an increased awareness of the issues surrounding works of art that were stolen, looted, or that otherwise illicitly changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era. Museums are addressing the ethical questions and challenges that may arise regarding the prior ownership of works acquired during or after these years.  In many cases ownership history is incomplete, or the available information may be inaccurate. Many documents and inventories that would enable scholars to investigate the past ownership and movement of works in Europe have only become available in recent years. As a member institution of the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the Allen Memorial Art Museum is committed to examining the provenance of works in its collection to determine whether any may have been subject to theft, looting or improper transactions. In 1999 the AAM published its “Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era”. In accordance with these and with other procedures established by the AAM, the AAMD (in position papers and reports of 1998, 2001 and 2007) and the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, the AMAM has created an online database of European paintings and works in other media that have gaps in their 1933-45 provenance.

Click here, AMAM 1933-45 Provenance List, for European paintings (oil-based media on canvas, wood panel or paper) in the AMAM collection that have gaps in their provenance between 1933 and 1945 and that were or may reasonably have been in continental Europe between those dates.  It is important to note that a gap in provenance or change in ownership does not necessarily mean that the work was stolen or seized. In the majority of cases it reflects incomplete or inadequate record keeping by previous owners. Research on the history of ownership is a continuing process, and not all of the AMAM’s collection has yet been assessed. New information about our European works during this period will be disclosed as it becomes available. Information is also disclosed on the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal database, a searchable registry developed by the AAM of works in United States museums created before 1946 and that changed hands or might reasonably have been in continental Europe from 1933-45.