Provenance research helps cultural organizations ensure proper ownership of art, artifacts and antiquities

Earlier this year, the Smithsonian Institution agreed to return most of its Benin bronze collection to Nigeria as part of a major restitution agreement. Many of the items were stolen from the Kingdom of Benin by the British army in 1897. The Smithsonian is now reviewing its collection practices and the ethics behind them.

Last fall, the Denver Art Museum agreed to return four Cambodian antiquities linked to art dealer Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 after decades of alleged trafficking in looted artifacts from the Khmer empire.

Museums everywhere are coming under scrutiny for collections that have a dubious past. Provenance research sheds light on the historical, social and economic context in which a work of art was created and collected. It helps to ensure that museums have proper ownership of antiquities. If a work of art is found to have been stolen, museums are expected return the item to its rightful owner as part of restitution.

Elizabeth Campbell, director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics

Recognizing the importance of provenance research, Elizabeth Campbell, associate professor of history, launched the Center for Art Collection Ethics (ACE) in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in 2018. As the center’s director. Campbell fields questions about provenance research and the challenges and ethical responsibilities museums face.

The broader public beyond the museum world has become more aware about the importance of provenance research in recent years. What is provenance research and why is it currently part of public discussions about art and museums?

Simply put, provenance is the ownership history of an object. But it goes beyond the chain of legal ownership and may be better thought of as an object’s biography. Where was it created, who has owned and traded it? What journey has it taken across territories and time? Are there any gaps in our knowledge about this biography, and might have any changes in possession resulted from theft or forced sales?

Provenance research is not new. In Europe, the gathering of this information was used at least as far back as the 17th century to authenticate items and appraise art collections and developed into a broader expansion of the art market and dealer networks. Provenance research has entered public discussions in recent years mainly in connection with the importance of identifying works of art that were plundered by the Nazis and ongoing efforts to restitute items to rightful owners. Popular films such as “Woman in Gold”and “The Monuments Men”also raised public awareness of Nazi looting and restitution efforts after the Second World War. However, the importance of provenance research extends well beyond items looted during the Nazi era and applies to items across art collections. Museums have also recently prioritized research on the origins of Native American and Indigenous items, antiquities and African objects. Often, the research is triggered by claims and has not yet been proactively systematized.

Why must museums carry out provenance research?

Provenance research is a key component of the ethical stewardship of items in a museum collection. In the area of Nazi-looted art, many plundered items were stolen from Jewish owners or sold by them under duress, amid a broader seizure of Jewish assets during the Holocaust. There is widespread recognition today that no institution operating in the public trust should hold items acquired through plunder and violence, whether they were looted from Jewish owners in the Nazi era, antiquities-rich countries or Indigenous communities.

In 1998, the U.S. State Department hosted an international conference on Holocaust-era assets. In the area of cultural assets, it led to the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, a nonbinding agreement signed by 44 countries, including Germany, pledging to facilitate provenance research and transparency. Since then, how much progress has been made in the restitution of stolen art?

There has been a good deal of progress in provenance research and transparency over the past 20 years. For example, art museums in the United States commonly have websites that explain current provenance research efforts. Some institutions provide a list of items for which there is a gap in provenance knowledge, particularly for items that may have changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era. The rise of the internet and the digitization of resources available to scholars, museum staff, potential claimants and the broader public has greatly facilitated this research.

In the early 2000s, the Dutch government carried out systematic provenance research on works obtained by the state in the wake of Nazi plunder, and in some cases, [it] granted significant restitution to rightful owners. In recent years, the French government has systematized and intensified research efforts on items appropriated and purchased by the state during and after the Second World War. Just in the past year, court rulings in France and Belgium restored Nazi-plundered works of art to Jewish families.

“The Graces in the Gardens of the Hesperides” by Peter Paul Rubens was discovered in conquered Germany at the end of World War II. The looted masterpiece was just one of many seized by the Nazis.

However, much more could be done. Museums in the United States are largely private institutions, and few enforcement mechanisms exist to ensure institutions are carrying out this due diligence. And among the 44 countries that signed the Washington Principles, adherence to the spirit of the agreement varies widely. Spain and Hungary recently have fought to keep Nazi-looted works in museums, and Russia stridently defends its right to hold “trophy art” seized by the Red Army in central and eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.

Many museums find provenance research cost-prohibitive. What else can museums do to ensure that objects on display are not stolen?

The work is often laborious, time-consuming and expensive. Yet it must be considered part of ethical due diligence at the time of acquisition, via donations or purchases, and on items in permanent collections most likely to have been plundered or sold under duress. Capital campaigns should seek funding for provenance research as an essential aspect of ethical art stewardship.

What happens when provenance research signals that a work of art does appear to have a questionable past?

General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied commander, inspects art treasures looted by the Germans and stored away in the Merkers salt mine.

Each case is unique, and the result will vary widely across countries, institutions and collections. In the realm of Nazi-era art, institutions might use genealogists to track the current rightful owner and reach an agreement suitable to all parties. If no owner can be identified, an institution should provide all known information on a public website and update the information as research progresses.

In the United States, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) [stipulates that] museums that receive federal funding must allow consultations with Native American and Indigenous representatives to identify human remains, funerary objects and cultural items, and potentially submit a repatriation claim. Many practitioners in this area do not use the term “provenance research,” as consultation is central to the process.

If a museum knowingly has stolen art in its collection, does it have the right to keep or display the object? What is a museum’s ethical responsibility?

Some museums have fought lengthy and expensive court battles to keep plundered art in their collections. For example, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena recently won a case against the heir of Jacques Goudstikker, whose collection was plundered in the Netherlands by Hermann Göring and his associates in the wartime art trade. The museum argued that it held clear title to a pair of paintings from the collection through a legitimate sale in 1971. That museum determined that “ethical stewardship” meant maintaining the integrity of the collection. Other museums do not wish to hold plundered art from persecuted Jewish owners so clearly linked to a top Nazi official and so choose to grant restitution or reach a settlement with the rightful owners.

What does it mean to countries and tribes that regain these lost artifacts, and what does it mean to museums that lose them?

Restitution of plundered items, whether to individuals, countries or Indigenous communities, is a form of belated justice. From long histories of war, violence and genocide, it can provide a sense that families or communities have restored a tangible connection to their past.

For some Native and Indigenous communities, moreover, these items often have tremendous spiritual importance and are not mere art objects. They are ancestors, restored to tribes and descendants.

All museums only display a small fraction of their holdings. Any fear that museums will be emptied due to restitution claims are misplaced. Today, an informed audience expects museums to be ethical stewards of items held in the public trust. Provenance research is central to these efforts. DU’s Center for Art Collection Ethics provides training to graduate students and emerging museum professionals to help cultivate ethical practices among the rising generation of curators and museum staff members.


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