Researching and Documenting Provenance

The goal of provenance research is to clarify the origins of objects. It is a cross-disciplinary task for all the Foundation’s institutions. In several research projects, determining provenance is the sole task.

Files from the Central Archive of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Opens a Larger Version of the Image)Registry files from the Nationalgalerie for the year 1942 bound with sewn binding; they are currently located in the Central Archive of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. © SMB CC NC-BY-SA

The Spectrum of Tasks in Provenance Research

Provenance research can create entire “biographies” for individual works or groups of works. It can also answer scholarly questions, for example, about the history of collections or the art market. In addition, provenance research can also clarify issues of ownership.

A Cross-Disciplinary Task and a Specialized Field

Clarifying the ownership of its holdings is a central task for every public collection. Provenance research represents an important field of work at the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). It is a cross-disciplinary task that concerns all its members of research staff, for example, when investigating possible new acquisitions. Successful provenance research demands specialized knowledge, however. For that reason, there are units within the Foundation that are more or even exclusively concerned with it.

Bringing Competencies Together at the Foundation

In the meanwhile, there are several full-time positions for provenance research at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Several employees are working on various projects, some of which are limited term, investigating the origins of the collection. One permanent provenance researcher at the Zentralarchiv (Central Archive) of the museums coordinates their activities in addition to her own work. Because of its competence and its holdings of files, the Zentralarchiv is also an important source for other German museums working on issues of the origin of their objects.

At the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Department of Historical Prints pursues provenance research as a separate task. As part of the Reichstauschstelle (Exchange Office of the Third Reich) project, the Staatsbibliothek also investigates its own policies of acquisition and distribution from 1933 to 1945.

All of the Foundation’s institutions are currently researching the provenance of various holdings as part of research projects. One current focus of these efforts is identifying works seized from their owners during the National Socialist period as part of their persecution.

Sources and Documentation

When determining provenance, a wide variety of sources are employed. They include, for example, written documents and other records in the institutions, archive holdings outside the foundation, and auction catalogs and documents of the art trade from the periods in which the objects under study changed hands. Traces on the works themselves, such as stickers or stamps, can also provide information about the history of their origins.

Many publications by the Foundation and its individual collections and institutions document the results of their provenance research. Provenance records for books from the Staatsbibliothek can be researched in its electronic library catalog. In addition, the Foundation publishes research results that concern assets looted by the National Socialists in the Lost Art Database of the Koordinierungsstelle für Kulturgutverluste (Germany’s Central Office for the Documentation of Lost Cultural Property) in Magdeburg.