Provenance Research

What is the history behind a work of art? What hands did the work pass through? Might it be that it has a dark past? The answers to these questions have been gaining in explosiveness and importance.

The research on the origins of a work of art, the so-called provenance research, has become crucial and highly esteemed. Over the past 20 years, it has been established as an independent research area in the field of art studies. It deals with retracing the succession of owners and ownership relationships as seamlessly as possible. At the latest since the Act on the Protection of Cultural Property went into effect in 2016, this topic also bears a particular relevance to auctioneering.

Karl & Faber is aware of this responsibility, and over the years, we have developed great expertise on the subject of provenance research and the restitution of works of art. As a result, the auction house has significantly contributed to closing more than a few dark chapters as well as to reaching practical, fair and just solutions – for both sides, the representatives of the heirs as well as the current owners of the art works.

Here are a few examples:

In 2011, Karl & Faber was very successful in mediating a settlement at the auction of a self-portrait by Wilhelm Trübner from the collection of Jewish industrialist Berthold Nothmann.

In 2015, the auction house proved its negotiating skills in the case of Franz von Stuck’s spectacular painting “Die Sinnlichkeit (Sensuality)”, which was formerly owned by the Jewish Flersheim couple. After the wife and son fled in 1937, the work was bought by the German Reich for the Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. After the war, the oil painting landed at the Central Collecting Point of the US-Army. In 1963, it was sold by the Free State of Bavaria to the collector Carl Laszlo. Thanks to the mediation by Karl & Faber, Laszlo’s heir decided on an agreement with the Flersheim heirs. Thus, the painting could go to auction unencumbered by third-party claims for a sensational 550,000 € (result including premium).

In 2017, KARL & FABER auctioned off two drawings by Pompeo Batoni from the art collection of Fritz Hausmann as well as eight paintings by Wilhelm Busch from the Collection Rudolf Neugass and a year later, two watercolors by Lovis Corinth from the Curt Glaser Collection. Being of Jewish descent, the art historian and collector Professor Dr. Curt Glaser had been forced to retire and subsequently made to leave Germany in 1933. In order to finance his road to exile, he put up for auction large parts of his comprehensive collection in May 1933 with Max Perl in Berlin.

These are just a few examples of the numerous cases in which KARL & FABER has managed not only to achieve top prices for the works of art, but also to find a satisfactory solution for the consignors and the heirs.

In compliance with its obligation to due diligence, KARL & FABER does not conduct provenance research only on its own. The auction house also commissions renowned provenance researchers and in addition, ensures that all works in the printed auction catalogue have been checked out prior to each auction by Art Loss Register, which compares them with their data listings. Art Loss Register disposes over the largest data base worldwide with respect to lost or stolen works of art.

KARL & FABER is also strongly dedicated to the theme of provenance and restitution outside the auctioneering business. For example, in November of 2016, an event was held on the premises of KARL & FABER dealing with the subject “Will everything change? The Act on the Protection of Cultural Property – Defining a Position”. A panel of experts discussed the most pressing issues concerning the amendment of the Act on the Protection of Cultural Property, which went into force in 2016.

In May 2019, Dr. Rupert Keim participated in a panel discussion in connection with the colloquium “Provenance and Collection Research”, organized by the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. Karl & Faber also provides financial support for the research work carried out by this institution.

In the autumn of 2019, KARL & FABER hosted a meeting of the common interest group of the German Art Trade Association on the topic “Fair and just? Restitution and Provenance in the Art Market. Practice. Problems. Perspectives”. The conference cast light on the historically and legally complex theme of stolen art during the Nazi regime, also from the viewpoint of the market players. The keynote speech “Law, Justice, Peace” was held by Professor Dr. Michael Wolffsohn, award-winning historian and author in the field of contemporary history. You may read his lecture in our “Journal” published in the Spring of 2020: Journal 2020 | PDF (p. 36–41).