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Researching the Origin of Works of Art

Provenance Research

Provenance research is dedicated to the investigation of the origins of works of art and cultural assets. The term "provenance" comes from Latin and means "to come from". In museums, collections, archives, libraries and auction houses, the changing ownership and possession of objects of cultural heritage are investigated. 


In addition to identifying so-called looted property, provenance research also serves to gain knowledge about the history of collections and institutions and to understand the processes of authentication, (value) attribution or appropriation of what is defined today as cultural property. Knowledge of the provenance of artworks is also becoming increasingly important for private collectors as not only the value of a work depends on a complete provenance, but also whether it can be sold at all.

Fundamental aspects of provenance research are, for example:

  1. History of the provenance: Provenance research traces the history of a work of art or cultural property from its creation to the present day. It attempts to reconstruct and reveal all previous ownership relationships (provenances).

  2. Challenges: Especially with regard to Germany there are challenges due to art theft and expropriation during the Nazi regime. 

  3. Methods: Provenance research uses a wide range of  sources. Direct information can often be found on the object itself, such as inscriptions on the back, artist's notes or dedications. External materials include, for example, catalogs of works, exhibition and auction catalogs as well as archival materials such as artists' estates or business documents.

  4. International networking: Sometimes there is a total absence of information on provenance. In such cases, collaboration with researchers in Germany and abroad can provide clues to fill in provenance gaps.

My Approach: Researching Provenances

After recording the artworks with all the information about the object, I begin with an initial check of a dozen or so databases for provenance research, which primarily cover the National Socialist era (Nazi era). These databases contain, for example, information on traded artworks, digital copies of auction catalogs primarily between the years 1900 and 1945, publications from the Nazi era, property cards and correspondence on artworks held in German and foreign archives. In addition, research is carried out in the two most important databases on sought and found works of art ( and It can also be useful to search image databases for old photos of the artwork to obtain notes on previous owners. If the databases only contain references to documents in archives, but no online resources, I will contact the archives to request scans. Alternatively, I will visit the archive in question to conduct research. 

There are always situations in which the research proves to be dead ends and produces no leads. This is where the Provenance Research Working Group comes into play. It offers international and scientific cooperation in provenance research and regularly organizes specialist conferences to establish scientific standards in the field. I have been a member for over twenty years and have access to provenance researchers that I can turn to for further help.

After completing the research in databases, archives, and specialist literature, I will prepare an expert opinion with a summary of the former ownership structure and, if desired, make a recommendation.

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