What is Provenance Research?

Provenance refers to the history of the origin of objects, from their creation to their current location. Investigating the provenance of collection holdings is one of the core tasks of academic work in museums. Reconstructing, as completely as possible, the sequence of all owners of an object is linked, for example, with insights into the authorship of the works and the history of institutions and collections.

Today, in museums, the systematic research of provenance is primarily related to the confiscation of cultural assets during the National Socialist era (1933-1945) and other contexts of injustice. In this respect, the investigation of one’s own collection involves a special responsibility. Many of the mostly Jewish victims of the Nazi regime were expropriated or forced to abandon or sell their property while fleeing persecution. In this way, cultural assets belonging to the victims also ended up in public collections.

In the 1998 Washington Declaration representatives of 44 nations agreed to provide funds in order to identify and return confiscated artworks to their rightful owners. Two years later, the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum initiated a first research project to investigate the provenance of the paintings acquired between 1933 and 1945. In 2007, the City of Cologne established a separate office for provenance research in the Department of Arts and Culture.

Provenance Research at the Cologne Museum of Applied Arts

The focus of provenance research at the MAKK is to examine the collection with regard to cultural assets that were obtained as a result of persecution by the Nazis. During and after the National Socialist era, the MAKK, then still known as the Museum of Arts and Crafts, also included objects in its collection that had been unlawfully confiscated from their previous owners. One example of this are the faiences purchased in 1938/39 from the collection of the Nuremberg entrepreneur Igo Levi (before 1888-1961). Levi was persecuted by the National Socialist regime because of his Jewish ancestry and had to flee to Switzerland in 1939. His art collection was confiscated and underwent compulsory sale. After the end of the Second World War, Igo Levi applied for the return of his unlawfully seized art collection. The Museum of Arts and Crafts returned a total of six faiences to the collector in 1951 and 1954, while others remained in the museum as donations.

With the publication of inventory catalogues of various areas of the collection of the Museum of Arts and Crafts, or the MAKK respectively, for many objects, information concerning their acquisition was compiled and made accessible. These catalogues provide a valuable basis for further research into the objects’ provenance. However, the information maintained and published in the museum archives is often limited to brief references to the last previous owners.

For many years, the origin of works included in the MAKK collection, which were created before 8 May 1945, has been researched prior to acquisition in order to be able to rule out confiscation due to persecution. This applies, for example, to a collection of works by the Jewish ceramist Margarethe Heymann-Loebenstein (1899-1990), acquired in 2015. For a complete investigation of the museum's holdings, not only the acquisitions during the National Socialist years and contemporary acquisitions must be examined. For all objects acquired between 1945 and 2009, the history of origin should also be researched at least back to the early 1930s. Ideally, the investigations will lead to a complete provenance for the respective objects.

Current results from provenance research at the MAKK are presented on our website in loose succession in two sections: Under "Object Stories" you will find researched provenance histories of individual artworks and under "The Person" texts on the actors and networks involved.