Provenance Research Project

Overview: Ownership History for European Paintings

View all works covered by the Provenance Research Project

As a fundamental part of its mission, the Art Institute of Chicago has always conducted research on works in its collection. An important part of that research is the effort to establish the provenance (chain of ownership) for a work, from the moment it leaves the artist's hands to the present. Since 1997, and in keeping with guidelines issued beginning in 1998 by the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the Art Institute has intensified its efforts to determine the provenance for the period 1933-1945 for paintings and sculpture in its collection.

This research began with an initial survey of all the European paintings and sculpture in the collection that were created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932. In accord with the AAM and AAMD Guidelines, the focus was on works acquired after 1932 and created before 1946; that changed owners during these years; and that were, or could have been, in continental Europe at that time.  Out of the surveyed objects, curators identified those that had gaps in their chain of ownership for the Nazi era (1933 to 1945). These objects were first published on the Art Institute's Web site in April 2000. The group of objects published on the website was subsequently expanded to include works that have a documented chain of ownership and hence no gaps in their provenance, but nevertheless were in continental Europe from 1933 to 1945, and also changed hands during that period. 

The Art Institute of Chicago continues to research the ownership history of those objects that lack conclusive provenance documentation. Ongoing efforts to identify past owners include physical examination of works and consultation of object files. Also critical are the investigation of museum and other archives, auction and exhibition catalogues, monographic studies, directories and catalogues of collections, dealer records, photographic archives, and publications of wartime activities of dealers and collectors. Some of these and other resources related to the search for and recovery of lost European artworks are listed in a bibliography compiled by the Art Institute's Ryerson Library. Curators and researchers also seek the advice of specialized scholars. As provenance research continues, this site will be updated to reflect new information. 

Provenance research can prove challenging as records may have been lost or destroyed in the upheaval of war. In addition, the passage of time and world events often make important information difficult to locate. Gaps in the provenance of a particular work may be attributable to different causes, from an owner's desire for anonymity to the unavailability of records of purchase and sale.  Thus, incomplete provenance information does not necessarily mean that a work has been tainted by the events of the Nazi era.  In addition, in some cases, a work may have been seized by the Nazis but later restituted to its original owners and subsequently donated or sold by them.  

By means of our ongoing research efforts, the Art Institute seeks to uncover more information about these works and to determine whether any work of art that has entered the museum's collection since 1932 could have been seized or stolen by the Nazis and not subsequently returned to its rightful owner. 

Anyone with information or questions concerning any of these works is urged to contact Rebecca Baldwin, director of public affairs, at (312) 443-3625.

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