Art at the DIAProvenance

Inside the Contemporary Art Galleries
Inside the Contemporary Art Galleries

Establishing continuous ownership records

Provenance — the history of an artwork's ownership — has always been an important component of curatorial research at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Knowledge of the geographic, personal, and commercial path followed by works of art is not only helpful in establishing authenticity, it also provides insight into the history of collecting and the way in which the meaning and status of an object changes when moved from one environment to another. Establishing a continuous record of ownership is not a straightforward task and, for a great many works of art in the DIA's collection, it is simply not possible to establish a complete provenance. This can even be the case for works of relatively recent origin. Dealers, for example, who have been a major factor in the transfer of artworks for over 100 years, did not always keep orderly records of their transactions and, even among those who did, many records have been lost or destroyed. Despite these factors, careful attention to provenance has recently been given extra emphasis by the belated realization that many works of art — particularly those seized by the Nazis from their Jewish owners — had not been returned to their rightful owners or their heirs.

Nazi Era Looted Art

Looting has always occurred in time of war. In 1204, as participants in the so-called Fourth Crusade, the Venetians took from Constantinople the four bronze horses that now grace the portico of St Mark's Cathedral. Napoleon hauled huge quantities of art back to Paris (including the four horses of St Mark's) most of which were returned following his defeat. But this kind of looting pales to near insignificance when compared with Adolf Hitler's systematic and thoroughgoing campaign to gather together all of the greatest art in several museums within Germany and Austria.

On gaining power in 1932, the Nazis began instituting a series of punitive laws designed to victimize the Jewish community. A prime focus for Hitler was the superb – and often well-published - art collections assembled by wealthy Jewish collectors. Much of this art was seized out-right; simply taken or purchased for ridiculously low prices in exchange for passes to leave the country. Following his successful campaigns in 1939-1941, Hitler ordered the wholesale removal of what he considered the best art from across Europe for his new art museums. The situation was complicated by Hermann Görin's parallel efforts as well as those of other enterprising Nazi officials, many of whom exploited the market for the Modern art despised by Hitler as "degenerate."

Fortunately, the Nazis kept detailed records, and the Allies — led by a special office of the US Army — were able to restore the bulk of the hoarded art to its prior owners. Unfortunately, this program was abruptly curtailed in 1950 with the beginning of the Korean conflict and the deepening of the Cold War and its records were classified. Although the records were quietly de-classified in the mid-1970s, full awareness of the incomplete nature of the restitution only occurred following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the opening of some of its archives. It has subsequently been estimated that approximately 20% of Nazi-era looted art remained in private hands and continued to circulate on the market, with much of it finding its way into US art museums.

For further reading on this subject see: The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas; The Lost Museum by Hector Feliciano; The Faustian Bargain by Jonathan Petropolis; Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics by Frederic Spotts. Nazi art "confiscated" by the Allies is retained by the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. and Russian museums on the respective grounds that it is too dangerous to return to Germany or is regarded as just compensation for the devastation perpetrated by the Nazis.

In an effort to ensure that the DIA does not retain looted art and in accordance with the guidelines adopted by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in 1998, this museum has posted a listing of all European paintings where the provenance indicates a change of ownership between 1932 and 1945. Research is being conducted to compile similar lists for European sculpture, drawings and decorative arts. These lists are available for review to individuals involved in potential claims.

Ancient Art

Burial sites have been a focus for grave robbers as far back as ancient Egypt and such robbery continues today with illicit excavation being carried out in many countries around the world. Unscientific excavation — recklessly digging a hole to uncover objects sought by collectors mainly in Europe and America — disrupts the surrounding area and destroys valuable contextual information. As long as there is a market for the world's antiquities, this kind of looting will continue and, to avoid directly stimulating such activity, the AAMD has issued guidelines (Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art, 2004) for museums that collect antiquities.

Because the remains of ancient civilizations are located in many different countries, the situation with regard to archaeological materials and ancient art is extremely complex and involves many different laws, regulations, and bilateral agreements. The DIA, which actively collects antiquities, endorses the AAMD report and adheres to the procedures recommended when considering an acquisition with a suspicious or incomplete provenance. Such procedures include: rigorous research into likely origin, history of ownership, and publication and/or exhibition history; concerted efforts to obtain complete export and import documents; prominent publication, with illustration, on the museum's web site; and establishment of a minimum number of years that the work can be demonstrated to have been out of its likely country (or countries) of origin. The DIA uses 20 years as a rule.

Many archaeologists vehemently oppose collecting antiquities altogether on the grounds that such activity is, by its very nature, an encouragement to robbers, and that objects deprived of their archaeological context are rendered meaningless. In the firm belief that aesthetic qualities and other information can be found in objects deprived of archaeological context, and that such "orphaned" objects are more likely to be given the exposure that enables potential claimants to come forward, the DIA will continue to acquire works of art from ancient civilizations.

Graham W. J. Beal

Graham W. J. Beal,
Director, Detroit Institute of Arts

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