15 February 2016

Research from the bedroom

by Marc Masurovsky


Internet connection within reach.
Sufficient battery time in your laptop to last at least 3 hours.
And some tea…or coffee.

Nowadays, if you want to launch into a research project involving the history of art objects, known as “provenance research,” you can get do so without having to get up, except to make yourself a cup of tea or for most of you out there, a cup of java.

Let’s get started….

I have to assume that you have not registered for any paying online database like the premium version of MutualArt, artnet, artprice, etc…which we will not discuss today.

You will only rely on freely accessible databases. No questions asked…Your focus will be on Nazi-era cultural losses. That means the start date is January 30, 1933, Hitler’s rise to power. Not September 1, 1939, not March 10, 1938, not the fall of 1935. January 30, 1933.

The databases that are mentioned in this article are by no means the only ones in existence. They are some of the more important tools at our disposal to engage in critical historical and forensic research into the history of art objects that crossed through the grinder of the Third Reich, the Holocaust and the Second World War, combined.
These databases are all works in progress due to the mountains of information that exist which must be reconciled before being entered and made available to the public at large.

The obvious places to consult are:

1/ the database of the Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg, which is under the aegis of the German Ministry of Culture and which has been recently absorbed into a reorganized “German Lost Art Foundation. The objects listed in the database were, for the most part, “lost” within the borders of Germany between 1933 and 1945, either through forced sales or outright confiscations and aryanization measures. The information can be very sparse or rather well fleshed out. Whenever an object’s claimant has retained a lawyer, you will find the name of the law firm that represents the interests of that claimant on the bottom of the dataset that you are exploring. Sometimes, there are intriguing details that make you wonder whether the object has ever been restituted.

Clicks: four clicks away from retrieving individual datasets.

2/ The ERR/Jeu de Paume database (formal title: Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume) documents cultural losses, mostly in German-occupied France, but also contains objects taken in Belgium and the Netherlands. The period covered by the database is 1940-1945. No need to search in this database for objects misappropriated in Germany or Austria. The database provides as much information about the object from time and place of confiscation to the postwar if at all possible, based on archival records in the US, France, and Germany. You can get the total number of datasets fairly quickly by clicking on “search” without filling out any field in the “advanced search” function of the ERR database. As of 15 February 2016, there are 28849 datasets representing about 30,000 objects.

Clicks: three clicks away from retrieving individual datasets.

3/ Object database of the European Commission for Looted Art (ECLA)

The datasets cover losses throughout Axis-controlled Europe. There are overlaps between this database, lostart.de and the ERR database. There are substantial data on Hungarian Jewish losses. The provenance information can be skimpy.

Clicks: three clicks away from retrieving individual datasets.

4/  “Entartete Kunst” database at the Free University of Berlin

This database focuses exclusively on works of art which were de-accessioned and confiscated in Nazi Germany for being “degenerate”, thematically objectionable or the artists producing these works being undesirable for a host of reasons defined by the Nazi authorities. The provenance information can be skimpy on many of the objects, but, as with all databases, it’s best to have the objects on display.
Clicks: three clicks away from retrieving individual datasets.

5/ Getty Provenance Index

This art historical database, emphasis on art historical, is hosted by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, CA. It provides a different point of entry into the search for and identification of misappropriated objects throughout the duration of the Third Reich. Sales information from German catalogues can provide critical information to show one of the many paths borrowed by looted objects.
Clicks: four or five depending on how you enter into the Getty Research Institute.

This link gives you access to the Getty Provenance Index Databases.

5/ RKD website of the Rijksbureau v. Kunsthistorische Documentatie

Clearly one of my favorite websites, which specializes on Dutch artists. The search process takes you through artists, and their works. The information supplied on each work can provide a gold mine of information about the history of art objects. This website is invaluable.

Clicks: three if you start from the main site.

6/ Musées nationaux récupération database of unclaimed objects listed as being in French museums.

This is a hybrid website with an index of objects, known as MNR, and is hosted by the French Ministry of Culture. Searches can be deceptive and all-inclusive, meaning that you might collect information about objects that are not directly connected to your search. But, it’s a minor inconvenience. The historical information about each MNR object is quite detailed. One advantage with the MNR site is that you can correlate objects with dealers’ names, like Fabiani or Gurlitt. From that standpoint alone, the search can be instructive.  It's best to use the MNR database with the ERR database (above) and the MCCP database (below).

Clicks: at least two depending on how you start.

7/The Division for Looted Art of the Polish Ministry of Culture

This site provides you a digital version of objects by type which disappeared from Poland after the German Army overran its territory in September 1939. Losses are mostly from public collections but also include registered losses from some of Poland’s best known aristocratic families whose estates were thoroughly plundered.

8/ the Munich Central Collecting Point database is a digital representation of the index cards that the American personnel from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) section of the US Occupation Military Government in Germany (OMGUS) compiled to document the entry and exit of looted objects that fell into the hands of American troops in the closing months of WWII.
From the main website of the German Historical Museum which hosts this database, it requires at least four clicks to gain access to the main page of the MCCP database. From there, you can maneuver by artist, type of work, title, and owner or thief, depending on what kind of information you have. You will need to use variant spellings because there are many misspellings in this database. However, it is an important tool for research because of the information contained on the cards which complements what you can find in other databases. Oftentimes, as in the case of paintings, markings from the backs of the paintings will be indicated on the MCCP index cards. Therefore, you will need to click on the cards themselves and read the information extracted from the backs because sometimes it has been badly transcribed in the database.

Well, that’s it for today.

These eight databases, when combined, will provide you with information about cultural losses in Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland,  as well as a smattering from Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

By checking these sites, you are exercising multi-source due diligence. A detailed consultation of these online databases can sharpen your research strategy for an actual visit to a physical archive and/or an art historical library with documents that you have to consult, yes, the kind that you touch with your fingers and that are made out of paper or the microfilms and microfiche which hold photographic images of the documents that you need.

The database checking process is not lengthy, although it can be addictive. So beware.
The very existence of these databases makes it more difficult to argue that “you did not know” that an object in your care or that you wish to purchase or exhibit had a complicated history mired in theft and genocide where the victimized owner was never reunited with her property. That’s when all the trouble begins.