Like each of us, objects have life stories.
When we think of an artwork’s history, we might consider its conception and creation—the artist’s inspiration for sculpting a particular figure, the patron’s intention when commissioning a painting—or its place within a museum collection. Another way to examine the history of art is through provenance. In art parlance, provenance is the history of ownership of an object from the moment of its creation to the present. Tracing the lineage of an artwork can yield fascinating information on the history of taste, trade in cultural goods, aesthetic influences, economic fluctuations, and collecting and exhibition practices. It can also tell us a great deal about the people who owned, exhibited, and viewed art throughout history.
One particularly pressing concern facing museums is the establishment of the provenance of objects that might have circulated in Europe between 1933 and 1945 in order to establish whether they were spoliated by Nazi forces.* As part of ongoing research into the World War II-era provenance of the Krannert Art Museum’s European collection of paintings, I attended a roundtable discussion and research week at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles this past April. The organizers of this roundtable invite a small group of provenance researchers at regular intervals to consider current research trends and resources, discuss shared difficulties, and forge professional ties in a field that is otherwise rather isolating (an inevitable result of the confidential nature of this research).
My presentation at the Getty roundtable concerned research conducted prior to beginning my studies at the University of Illinois. However, much of my time in Los Angeles was dedicated to furthering the work I began this year as a provenance research intern at Krannert Art Museum.
As the host of the Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance, the Getty is an incomparable resource for provenance research. Over the course of three days, I accessed dozens of primary sources such as original auction catalogues, photo archives, collector’s files, and artist correspondence, all of which may be accessed only at the Getty. I compared several annotated catalogues from the same 1940s London sale to verify the prices and buyers jotted down by contemporary participants. I read handwritten correspondence by the artist Charles Daubigny in the special collections reading room to trace the history of the Krannert’s painting On the Marne. And I conferred with well-informed colleagues on little-known art dealers. There is no substitute for archival research and dialogue with experienced specialists, and in my short time at the Getty I accomplished as much as I might have in three months from my workstation at KAM.
Because of this research, the life stories of Krannert Art Museum’s European paintings took on greater focus and richer detail. Most significantly, I located documentary evidence of a lawful wartime provenance for Hendrick van der Burch’s lovely Courtyard Scene, bringing us closer to our goal of establishing the WWII-era provenance of paintings in the Krannert Art Museum permanent collection.
*In the context of WWII-era cultural property displacement, spoliation is a precise term that includes theft, plunder, looting—that is, all unlawful acquisition—as well as state-sponsored confiscations and forced sales.