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Provenance Research

Provenance is the history of ownership of an object, beginning with the artist and date of execution, and moving forward to the present day. The Johnson Museum’s provenance research project focuses specifically on investigating, documenting, and publishing provenance information for works in our collection, with a particular emphasis on gaps in ownership history for certain groups of objects. Building on provenance research first undertaken in the late 1990s, the Johnson Museum is committed to providing greater access to its collections through this online project.

In the recent past, resolving issues surrounding gaps in provenance has become a key focus for cultural institutions. The Johnson Museum's project focuses on three historically significant areas of research. New information regarding the Nazis’ systematic looting of art during 1933–45 has come to light as documents related to World War II were declassified in the 1990s, and the fall of Communism allowed for greater access to international archives. Likewise, with the 1970 ratification of the UNESCO Convention to prevent and end illicit trade in antiquities and archeological materials, resources and protocols were developed to help both source countries and collectors protect and preserve cultural patrimony from illegal looting. Twenty years later, in 1990, in order to combat the unlawful excavation of unregulated trade in Native American cultural objects, the U.S. government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) into law.

The Johnson Museum publishes provenance information for accessioned objects in our collection in this section of our website, in order to further our mission of stewardship and collections research. Complete provenance is the exception, not the rule. It is rare to have complete provenance for an object, particularly for works hundreds of years old. Missing information may be due to lost or destroyed documentation, forgotten oral histories, or a good-faith gift or purchase made without any record of the exchange. The inclusion of a work on this portal does not necessarily mean it is problematic. It may be listed because it meets the criteria set forth in the relevant guidelines (please see Resources at right), and thus requires further research. The provenance information posted here reflects current research to date (updated 27 April 2015).

World War II-Era Provenance Research

Brief background

From 1933 until 1945, the Nazis looted an extraordinary amount of art from across Europe, focusing on collections and objects that particularly aligned with their ideology. Although the cultural branches of the Allied Forces returned much of it shortly after the war, unfortunately, thousands of works were lost, destroyed, or sold on the art market. With increased access to archival materials, World War II survivors and their families have come forward seeking return of, or compensation for, these objects.

To help member institutions with these issues, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and American Alliance of Museums (AAM), in conjunction with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, established guidelines in 1998 and 1999 to assist with the difficult and time-consuming work of provenance research. Please find links to these documents under Guidelines and Procedures: Nazi era Provenance, on the right-hand side of this page.

Criteria and methods

Building on provenance research undertaken by the Museum in the late 1990s, the Johnson Museum is reviewing its collection according to the criteria set forth in AAM’s Recommended Procedures for Providing Information to the Public about Objects Transferred in Europe During the Nazi Era:

1. Identify all objects:
     a. created before 1946 and acquired after 1932;
     b. that underwent a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946; and 
     c. that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe 
         between those dates (hereafter, "covered objects").

2. If unable to determine whether an object fits one or more of the three criteria above, it should still be treated as a covered object.

3. Initial research should focus on Judaica and uniquely identifiable European works of art.

N.B. It does not appear that the Museum holds any Judaica at this time. A thorough review of all the classifications of objects will enable us to confirm or update this information accordingly.

Covered objects are posted at right as HFJ Covered Objects, and cross-posted on AAM's Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP). Not all entries are complete, but the information listed has been confirmed.

Ancient Art and Archeological Materials Provenance Research

Brief background

In 1970, UNESCO adopted and ratified the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property ("1970 UNESCO Convention"), to counter widespread, long-term looting and illicit trade in cultural property. The 1970 UNESCO Convention remains the key instrument in the fight against looted and stolen patrimony. (For an in-depth discussion of the ethics surrounding cultural patrimony, see Kate Fitz Gibbon, “Chronology of Cultural Property Legislation” in Who Owns the Past?, 3-7.)

Although the United States was involved in drafting and negotiating the 1970 UNESCO Convention, it was not until 1983 that Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (“CIPA”), effecting Articles 7(b)(1) and 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. CIPA allows the President or an appointee to set bilateral agreements or emergency unilateral restrictions as recommended by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (“CPAC”) after CPAC vets applications from source countries. Based on the Department of State’s current chart of import restrictions, AAM, AAMD, and US cultural institutions prefer to use 1970, specifically November 17, 1970, as the critical date in provenance research. 

Criteria and methods

The Johnson Museum is reviewing its collections according to the criteria set forth by AAMD in their 2013 revised guidelines, as excerpted below. The complete guidelines can be found under the Guidelines and Resources page of this website:

1. Definitions:

a. “ ‘Archaeological material’ means an object of cultural significance created in antiquity and discovered on land, below ground, or under water as a result of scientific or clandestine excavation, exploration, or digging activities or inadvertently as a result of other activities;
b. ‘Ancient art’ means a work of art created in antiquity that is not archaeological material;
c. ‘1970’ means November 17, 1970;
d. ‘2008’ means June 4, 2008; and
e. ‘Work’ means an object of archaeological material or a work of ancient art.”

2. Guidelines:

“Member museums normally should not acquire a Work unless provenance research substantiates that the Work was outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970 or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970.”

Despite best efforts and careful due diligence as set forth in Section III, A-D, it may not be possible to obtain complete and documented provenance for an object. AAMD takes this into consideration, and carves out specific exemptions, which allow for the acquisition of the Work via an “informed judgment” based on “cumulative facts and circumstances” as set forth in Section III, F, particularly if it is a gift or bequest and, if prior to 2008, any of the following were true: the intention of donation following long-term loan was documented and signed; or the expectation of donation was documented or “memorialized” by the museum; or a fractional interest in the Work was acquired via gift, bequest, or purchase. AAMD also lists specific requirements for publishing in Section III, G-I, including posting of Works on the AAMD Object Registry, and for handling potential ownership claims from third-parties.

3. Categories

The Johnson Museum is committed to researching and posting its relevant Works, beginning with those acquired through purchase, gift, bequest, or exchange, from 2008 to present, and relevant exemptions, if necessary; followed by Works acquired through purchase, gift, bequest, or exchange, from 1970 to 2008; and finally Works acquired through purchase, gift, bequest, or exchange, before 1970.

4. Format

Each entry includes an image and specific categories of information considered by AAMD as critical for identification purposes.

Not all entries are complete, but the information listed has been confirmed. These works are posted on AAMD’s Object Registry: New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art

NAGPRA research

Brief background

On November 16, 1990, the Federal government signed NAGPRA into law. The act establishes a process by which federally recognized Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations, and lineal descendants can work with public or private museum that have received Federal funds, to return or repatriation Native American cultural objects, such as human remains, funerary or sacred objects, or cultural patrimony, which are held in the museums’ collections. It also provides guidance for the prevention of and protection against removal of and illegal trafficking in Native American cultural objects, including unidentifiable or unclaimed items.

Criteria and Methods

Because NAGPRA is a federal law, the Johnson Museum worked with Cornell’s General Counsel’s office in the 1990s to respond to a campus-wide survey of the University’s collections. We continue to work with the General Counsel’s office to update and comply with these federal regulations.