Art museums across the country, including the University Art Museum, have intensified their efforts over the past decade and a half to determine the provenance, or origin, of art from the World War II era.
Guidelines issued in 1998 by the Association of Art Museum Directors and in 1999 by the American Alliance of Museums ask museums in part to attempt to resolve whether there might be potential claimants to art they are considering purchasing or which they have in their collections if there is the possibility that work of art may have been unlawfully appropriated by the Nazi government in Germany from 1933-45.
Museums should also disclose the chain of custody for a work of art if it passed through Nazi hands even if it cannot identify potential claimants, the guidelines add.
“The ethics in the field really require you to know the provenance of the objects in your collection,” Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, said. ”If there is a claim against [an object’s provenance], you have to take it seriously. … You have to understand who the owner is and if they have a valid claim.”
Some museums use statutes of limitation or other legal arguments as justification for not pursuing provenance research, he explained.
“A museum director once said, ‘There is no statute of limitation on doing the right thing,’ and I think that’s important,” Bell noted.
The provenance of every work of art that comes into the museum is researched in some capacity, James Steward, director of the University Art Museum, said.
“Some of that is very easy, let’s say for a modern work of art that has been made recently, it hasn’t changed hands many times,” he said. “The research that is more important, ultimately, and more time-consuming has to do with objects that may pose some concern in terms of establishing a clear history of ownership.”
Other than objects that might have a Nazi era chain of custody, archeological or antiquity pieces require intensive research, he said.
“As a teaching museum, we teach through our ethical conduct as much as we do through the content of our exhibitions,” Steward said.
The work of tracing an object’s provenance falls on the curator whose subject encompasses the object, he explained.
“We conducted retroactive work for the whole of our collection between 2001 to 2003,” he said. “We hired outside sources on our staff for a few years that had special expertise for the Nazi era. The records for many collections were confiscated or destroyed, so it can be difficult to establish clear ownership.”
However, the work of establishing provenance is always ongoing, he said.
“We do work on an ongoing basis with every object that comes to us either because the curator is interested in buying it as a purchase for the collection or an alumni or a friend comes by with a gift offer,” he said. “We also do this retroactively as new information comes to light.”
In 2011, the Italian government’s prosecution of illicit antiquity traders suggested a few items the University had acquired in the 1990s and early 2000s were probably the fruit of illicit activity, he said. The museum offered to transfer the titles of the work to the Italian government and some objects were returned in 2011, he explained.
No similar revelations in provenance have been made in the museum’s collection art in the last year, he said.
“There are occasionally claims made against objects or expressions of interest,” he explained. “In the last couple of years, a claimant made a claim on an object in one of our collections, and we quickly determined it had no legitimacy. Nevertheless, we take all such claims seriously.”
The University Art Museum publishes an annual report that lists all acquisitions made that year, along with those acquisitions’ origins. It also follows the guidelines of the American Association of Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums, Erin Firestone, public relations manager at the museum, said.
“We’ve always been members of both organizations, and we’ve always been part of the conversation of following those best practices,” she said.
The United Nations’ Convention of the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 1970 was key in establishing international guidelines for due diligence in tracing cultural works’ origins, Firestone explained.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were a number of problems internationally with looting and art transferring hands without countries being aware of it, she added.
“The UNESCO convention was a really important, landmark year where there was now this line drawn in the sand where … all of the museums in the United States, as well as Western Europe especially, abide by a rule that you have to do your due diligence to find out the provenance of an object that you acquire that was taken or released from its state of origin after 1970,” she said.
In the 1980s, the University Art Museum registered with the Getty Provenance Index database.
“[The Convention] created this whole push to encourage museums … to trace back the history of [Nazi-era] provenance,” Firestone said. “We were a part of that push way before it was a legal thing that you had to do. We really led the charge in looking at our own collections to ensure that we didn’t have any art objects that were stolen or looted.”
One of the museum’s first instances of tracing Nazi-era provenance was with the painting “Saint Bartholomew” by Bernardino Pinturicchio, she noted. In 1941, the painting was auctioned off as part of the estate of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, a Jewish resident of Vichy France without his family’s knowledge. The museum then contacted the family and made offers of restitution that the family accepted.
“[Di Giuseppe’s family] actually offered that we hold on to that piece of art because it would benefit the public more than if it went back into private hands,” she said. “That was a really nice outcome of some of this research that we’ve done.”
While art acquired after 1970 from other countries is well-documented, tracing the provenance of earlier-traded items sometimes proves more difficult, she explained.
“Everything that’s been acquired since the UNESCO convention has been researched to the best of our ability,” she said. “As with a lot of art objects, there can be gaps in that provenance history, but that’s just natural. It’s not uncommon for there to be gaps, but we do as much as we can to fill the gaps and to be transparent.”