Provenance Revealed: General Introduction

Under the title “Provenance Revealed”, we present the handling of provenance research in daily practice in an exciting series of articles. In the coming weeks, you will learn about current events, case studies and their backgrounds.

For a long time, provenance research has been an essential part of work of any reputable auction house. Whereas in the past it was carried out in particular with a focus on checking the authenticity of a work of art, in more recent years this focus has shifted to checking for a possible seizure of property between 1933 and 1945. If this is the case, we talk about so-called “looted art”. Additionally, well-documented provenance is a value-forming factor, especially if the artwork was part of an historical and important collection of a well-known personality.

Therefore, provenance research is very welcome for all sides. A clearly established provenance can eliminate the risk of the buyer acquiring a forgery. If, as a result of the research, a case of looted art has been uncovered and an amicable agreement reached on the object between the current owner and the aggrieved former owners or their heirs, the work of art is “pacified”. It can continue to circulate in the art trade with a clear conscience, which benefits both the buyer and the seller. And finally, both sides profit from the fact that the material as well as the immaterial value of an art work will increase with a clear documented provenance.

So much for the theory: in practice, however, the situation is often different. Only in exceptional cases is there concrete evidence that can prove a provenance back to the creation of an art work, ideally without gaps. As in a mosaic, provenances are brought together and revealed based on information in exhibition catalogues, lists of works, secondary literature, etc. Original invoices, documents on the artworks and the like exist only in exceptional cases.

The clear identification of a work can be problematic in a lot of cases. Often there are only vague references to works in lists, archive materials or old invoices. One example is a note on an inventory or confiscation list, “Liebermann, Strandszene”. Liebermann created dozens of paintings that would fit such a description, therefore precise information is needed to clearly identify a work of art: e.g., illustrations, exact measurements or precise descriptions. Titles of a work of art can also change over the years, as can the authorship of unsigned Old Master paintings.

Solid work on provenance requires solid research tools.

One such database is the Lost Art Database of the Stiftung Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste. The better the content and structure of such a database is maintained, the more precisely provenance research can be conducted. Unfortunately, this database repeatedly reveals deficiencies that may unnecessarily burden the art trade and collectors.

The highest German civil court, the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe, has commented on the requirements for entries in the Lost Art Register in its verdict from 21 July 2023. We will look at the impact of this verdict in more detail in one of the next posts in our series: What requirements does the court place on these entries and what does this mean for the Lost Art register?

Dr. Rupert Keim