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Provenance research

1933-1948—the dangerous years: how Sotheby's check art for tainted provenance

A Sotheby’s lawyer describes the work of its provenance research team

Isabel von Klitzing

Every work of art has at least two histories: its own, as the creation of an artist, and that of its owners over the years of its existence. It is the latter that has gained more and more importance during the past decade. To establish the provenance of a work of art not only helps prove its authenticity and enhance its art-historical reputation, but it may also determine whether a work can be traded on the international art market.

Over recent years the art world has shown an increasing awareness of the importance of provenance, and possible provenance gaps, for the period between 1933 and 1948. A spur to this was the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets of 1998, at which a set of principles was adopted, which include a recommendation for State museums and public collections to carry out provenance research and return looted objects.

In 1997, Sotheby’s established its own provenance research team, based in London and New York, whose job it is to review, so far as possible, the ownership history, between 1933 and 1948, of every work of art to be offered for sale. The also complements Sotheby’s policy is also to disclose the fullest provenance available for this period in its catalogues.

The starting point for every piece of research is the contractual obligation of the consignor to provide all information in his or her possession about the history of the object. This is followed by inspection for names, labels and stamps on the object itself. The available art-historical literature is consulted for provenance information and any name in the provenance history is checked against Sotheby’s internal database, which contains almost 6,000 names of victims and aggressors. Sotheby’s also has strong international links with academics in this field and belongs to a German working group for provenance research. In addition Sotheby’s pays for its catalogues to be reviewed for possible claims by the Art Loss Register: indeed, Sotheby’s was a founder of this international private database of stolen and missing works of art, antiques and valuables and provided initial funding for a specialist position at the Art Loss Register to focus on World War II claims.

If there remains any doubt about the provenance of a work of art, additional research is conducted. Since there were many reasons for the involuntary displacement of property after 1933, every case is unique. For example, a large number of Jewish collections were seized by the Nazis and sold by auction or through dealers, many of them abroad, in order to generate foreign exchange. Persecuted collectors were often forced to consign property to auction so as to be able to pay flight tax or penalties, and in many cases they never received the proceeds. Works of art were also displaced after being condemned as degenerate by the Nazis or following seizure by allied forces in occupied Europe, by Soviet forces, or by the regimes that came to power after the end of the war. In reviewing the provenance of a work of art, Sotheby’s draws on information from many sources, including archives all over the world, museums, Jewish institutions, researchers and publications on dislocated art.

Even if sale protocols or other documents regarding the displacement can be found, the information they provide is not always correct or helpful. Although numerous suspect provenances can be exonerated—if, for example, it can be proven that an object had been restituted to the original owners after the war—many others are much more difficult to research, and the fate of many objects will remain unclear forever. This may be due to a lack of documentation, to a change in attribution or simply the loss of the work’s history.

If it appears that a work of art might have been displaced between 1933 and 1948 but has never been restituted, Sotheby’s will encourage the current owner to enter into a dialogue with the heirs of the previous owner or the institution concerned, with a view to reaching an amicable solution that reflects both the legal and moral positions of the parties. Sotheby’s will often work together with the parties to facilitate this, especially since it is common for both the heirs and the current owner to be victims, albeit in very different ways, of the original act of displacement so many years before.

The writer is a lawyer at Sotheby’s.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '1933-1948—the dangerous years: how we check art for tainted provenance'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 149 July 2004