Dresden to spend €15m and employ 65 researchers on biggest provenance study ever undertaken

1 million objects will be examined and recorded over 10 years


Dresden. Dresden Museums has been given E15m for provenance and inventory research, and this month a team of 40 will begin recording a collection of over 1m objects. This is by far the most ambitious provenance project ever undertaken by a museum anywhere in the world.

The money comes from Germany’s Saxony regional government. The research will take ten years and 65 staff will eventually be employed.

The provenance project is named the Daphne Database, after the Greek myth of the nymph Daphne who was transformed into a laurel tree. The idea is that a basic inventory will “branch out” to include the history of the objects, available in digital form.

The Dresden State Art Collections encompasses eleven individual museums. Among the most important collections to be investigated are prints and drawings (550,000 items), coins (300,000), decorative art (54,000), sculptures (26,000), porcelain (19,000), paintings (7,300) and Green Vault treasures (5,000).

Dr Gilbert Lupfer, who heads the provenance research, says one of the reasons for the examination of the entire collection is claims from the Wettin family, who ruled Saxony until 1918. But he says that Nazi-era claims from Jewish victims and communist expropriation under the German Democratic Republic are also “very important”.

The House of Wettin is currently claiming nearly 5,000 objects from Dresden Museums, including 4,000 pieces of porcelain, 440 treasures from the Green Vault and 140 paintings.

The museum collection was built up by Wettin princes, particularly in the 18th century. The Saxony princes fell from power in 1918, and most of their collection then passed into public ownership. Some works of art reverted to family ownership in 1924, and these include objects which were later expropriated by the Soviet Army in 1945, and subsequently returned to Dresden Museums under the German Democratic Republic. The current Wettin claims concern these items.

In 2006 six important pieces of porcelain were returned to the Wettin family; one was repurchased by Dresden Museums and others were auctioned in London.

Restitution claims have put enormous pressure on the resources of Dresden’s Porcelain Collection. All exhibition loan requests have subsequently had to be cancelled or rejected.

With regard to Nazi-era and World War II restitution, Dresden is both facing claims for objects that wrongfully entered its collection and is itself trying to recover looted works. In 2006 a Rachel Ruysch flower still-life painting was returned to the Goudstikker heirs. Last year, objects from Leipzig seized by Soviet troops in 1945, and incorrectly returned to Dresden Museums in 1958, were restituted to the Grassi Museum in Leipzig.

Confiscation by the German Democratic Republic has caused further problems. In 2006 two important pieces of porcelain were restituted to Konrad Meissner, whose father had lost them in 1982. After restitution, the porcelain was subsequently re-purchased by Dresden Museums.