Research on the ownership history, or provenance, of works of art is an important part of museum work. This research sheds light on the historical, social, and economic context in which a work of art was created and collected, as well as on the history of taste. While provenance research has long been ongoing at the Metropolitan Museum, a special effort has been made in the past few years to investigate the World War II–era provenance of European paintings in our collections. This effort has focused on works that were 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.
A time of great turmoil and upheaval, the years immediately before and during the war saw many paintings and other works of art come onto the international market, in some cases as the result of the Nazi looting of private collections. Though large numbers of seized works were subsequently restituted to their original owners or their heirs, or returned to the country from which they had been confiscated, some continued to appear on the art market and to make their way into other collections, both public and private. The purpose of the Provenance Research Project is to determine whether any paintings that have entered the Museum's collections since 1932 could have been seized or stolen by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted to their rightful owners.
Complete provenance of a given work of art, particularly one pre-dating the nineteenth century and the advent of the modern art market, is often difficult if not impossible to establish. Records of sale, particularly for paintings or objects that have not changed hands for several generations, frequently do not survive. Moreover, many private collectors buy and sell works anonymously through third parties, such as dealers or auction houses, which may or may not disclose the owner's identity. Finally, many nineteenth- and twentieth-century dealers and auction houses are no longer in business. In those cases, records are at best incompletely preserved, if not lost or destroyed. All these factors contribute to the gaps that commonly occur in a work of art's provenance. Such gaps do not signal that the work was looted or stolen, only that the complete ownership history cannot be reconstructed today.
In 2000 Philippe de Montebello, who was director of the Museum at the time, joined other museum directors in presenting testimony before the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets and discussing ways in which the museum community could make information on the provenance of paintings in their collections more widely available. The American Association of Museums (AAM) appointed a task force to formulate guidelines for museums to follow in posting their provenance data online. The task force included museum professionals as well as representatives of the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets and the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York State Banking Department. It was decided that museums would provide online information about paintings and Judaica (such as menorahs, Torah pointers, and ceremonial objects) that were likely to have been in Europe during the years 1933 to 1945 and that have gaps in their provenance.
That same year, in 2000, the Museum began publishing images and provenance information online for relevant European paintings. In accordance with the AAM guidelines, we continue to conduct research and update our provenance records, and will do so until all European paintings and Judaica that meet the criteria noted above have been identified.
Statement by Philippe De Montebello, director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at a hearing of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust assets in the United States, Wednesday, April 12, 2000, The Association of the Bar of the City of New York