10 February 2016

Thoughts about provenance research, 1995-2016

by Marc Masurovsky

It has been almost twenty years, yes, 20, two times 10, 4 times 5, since “provenance research” entered the public sphere in the context of Holocaust-related matters.

Up to that time, no one uttered those two words who was not an art historian or an art expert and only in the most guarded ways. Provenance research had always been the exclusive province of art historians and, by extension, museum professionals and stewards of art collections.

Several events, when viewed cumulatively, can be blamed for upsetting the apple cart of provenance.

1/ the January 1995 “Spoils of War” International conference sponsored by the Bard [College] Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. Although focused in part on Soviet “takings” of cultural objects which were located in their zone of military occupation in the waning months of WWII, the conference was an opportunity to revisit the massive looting of art objects by all sides, mostly by the Axis powers, during the Nazi era, the Holocaust and WWII. Implicit was the understanding that the provenance history of these mislaid, stolen, plundered, displaced art objects had been severely disrupted as a result of war, occupation, and genocide. In attendance were art historians, lawyers and government officials from a variety of countries.

2/ The Swiss bank crisis regarding Jewish dormant accounts emerged in 1995 initially pitting the World Jewish Congress and its president, Edgar Bronfman, against the Swiss Bankers Association. It exploded into a series of landmark hearings organized by Republican Senator Alfons d’Amato, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and the launching of a class action suit by 22 American lawyers representing Holocaust survivors and their heirs whose assets were on deposit in Swiss banks. What did this have to do with provenance research? Writ large, the Swiss bank crisis paved the way for a more public discussion of the fate of Jewish assets held in various parts of Europe by institutions, financial and cultural, which had no business holding on to them. If anything, the debate over Swiss banking misdeeds called into question the illicit ownership of tangible assets misappropriated from their rightful owners, Jewish victims of Nazism.

3/ The “Eizenstat reports” of 1996 and 1997 on the (mis)handling of gold looted by the Nazis, sold and/or deposited in Swiss banks and in financial institutions in other so-called “neutral countries” during WWII. Although not focused on art, we can argue that the "provenance" of the gold looted by the Nazis lay at the center of the US government study of "looted gold" and the Swiss role in recycling it.

4/ the September 1997 international conference in Washington, DC on the “legal and moral consequences of art restitution” organized by Ori Z. Soltes, director of the Klutznick Museum of B’nai B’rith in Washington, DC, placed looted art and the challenges of postwar restitution squarely in the forefront of public debate over looted art. That conference witnessed the birth of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP).

4a/ The World Jewish Congress (WJC) announced the establishment of its own looted art project, the “Commission for Art Recovery", chaired by Ronald S. Lauder.

5/ the seizure of “Portrait of Wally” and “Night City III” by Egon Schiele at the Museum of Modern Art in January 1998 opened wide the doors on how looted art is able to travel, claimed and unrestituted, for decades and end up on loan at an eminent New York cultural institution.

6/ the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets of December 1998 which produced the much heralded and reviled non-binding “Washington Principles”, acting as guidelines for handling “looted art”. Provenance research lay at the core of these principles.

7/ the legislating of a Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets (PCHA) which saw the light of day in June 1998, and opened its doors in spring of 1999. Art was one of three “assets” to be investigated by an executive commission until 2001. Excluded from consideration were looted art objects in the United States, a critical failure of the PCHA.

8/ the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) enacted their own guidelines on how to handle art objects in their collections.

9/ the AAM published a “Guide to Provenance Research” co-authored by Nancy Yeide of the National Gallery of Art, Amy Walsh of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Konstantin Akinsha, author of “Beautiful Loot.”

In the space of five years, art historians found themselves “sharing” provenance research and with attorneys, government officials, non-art historians, researchers, Holocaust claimants and their advocates, and NGO’s concerned with the location, identification and restitution of art objects misappropriated between 1933 and 1945.

Once viewed as a discrete task limited to the scholarly documentation of the history of art objects, provenance research became politicized overnight with battle lines drawn over how far such research would go and what the ultimate goal of provenance research should be. Is it really about documenting and verifying who has good title to an object? Or should such questions not haunt an art historian’s quest for information about an object?

The debate still rages, the camps have solidified, alliances between American and German museum professionals are the latest incarnation of this struggle as museum professionals and “provenance researchers” on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean cement their strategic partnerships within the museum world. Outside that sphere are those who advocate a more ecumenical and interdisciplinary approach to provenance research, closely connected with political, economic and social history, the upheavals that they document, and using such research to right some wrongs and inject ethics into the stewardship of collections while shedding light on the mechanics of cultural plunder and helping to (re)write the history of art as seen through the distorted prism of mass conflict, dictatorship and genocide. Not pretty but necessary.