Home > Collections > Provenance Research

Provenance Research

Provenance and World War II Era

During the tumultuous years before and during World War II, the Nazi regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural objects in Europe on an unprecedented scale. Millions of art objects and other cultural items were unlawfully and often forcibly removed from their rightful owners. While many of these confiscated items were returned to their owners through extensive postwar restitutions, some continue to appear on the legitimate art market and make their way into private and public collections.

In the late 1990s, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued guidelines for museums concerning objects that may have been illegally confiscated during the World War II era. After the Washington Conference on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets was held in 1998, AAM and AAMD further recommended that museums make all currently available information accessible to online researchers to aid the discovery and identification of objects that were unlawfully appropriated during the Holocaust era. Under these recommendations, museums should identify works in their collections that were created before 1946 and were acquired after 1932; underwent change of ownership between 1933 and 1945; and were, or might reasonably be thought to have been, in continental Europe in the years before and during World War II. Smithsonian representatives were active in drafting and implementing the recommendations around 2000, and provenance research was undertaken in the paintings, sculpture, and Judaica collections of the Smithsonian Institution around that time.

Freer|Sackler World War II Era Provenance Project

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery initiated a comprehensive provenance research project for their Asian art collections in 2008. The project represents a long-term commitment to research as fully as possible the provenance of all objects in any media within the Freer and Sackler collections that have gaps in ownership history or may have been subject to questionable transfer of ownership or unlawful appropriation during the World War II era.

The Asian Art Provenance Connections Project

As part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to undertake World War II era provenance research across its collections, the Freer|Sackler is engaged in a comprehensive provenance research project focused on its Asian works of art, beginning with its Chinese collections. Biographies of selected collectors and dealers related to these Chinese works of art are available as PDFs, with links to their related objects on the Freer|Sackler website and through the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.

The Asian Art Provenance Connections Project makes provenance information both searchable and linked to supporting resources. This project not only takes a broad approach to considering the ownership of a work of art, but it also connects the people who collected the object, its related historical and cultural events, and the archival documents associated with its history of ownership. By expressing provenance information as linked open data and by creating a search interface that exposes relationships articulated through the data, the project promotes international awareness, supports effective research methodologies, and facilitates international collaboration and information exchange between museums and the public concerning Asian art provenance.

The Connections project and the selected biographies have been made possible by the generous support of the David Berg Foundation, which has supported the development of this project, its concept, and its implementation. The Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative (SPRI) and the University of Glasgow have also provided valuable assistance, leadership, and scholarship.


The Asian Art Provenance Connections Project Team

  • Beth Duley, Head of Collections Management, Freer|Sackler
  • Jeffrey Smith, Assistant Registrar for Collections Information, Freer|Sackler
  • Samantha Viksnins, Project Manager

Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative (SPRI)

  • Jane Milosch, Director
  • Laurie Stein, Senior Advisor
  • Nick Pearce, Fellow, and Richmond Professor of Fine Art, University of Glasgow

The Freer|Sackler works closely with the Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative. The SPRI supports the work of provenance research at all Smithsonian museums and assists in clarifying questions about gaps in ownership history, transfer of ownership, and/or unlawful appropriation of an artwork. Given the Smithsonian’s mandate for broad service to the arts, SPRI also promotes research beyond the Smithsonian’s own museums and archives. Through international scholarly exchange, SPRI facilitates national and international symposia, publications, online resources, projects, and training programs in an effort to lead to new findings and to build partnerships with other institutions.


We are excited to reopen the Freer in October 2017, following a renovation to allow us to better present our art and serve our visitors. The Sackler remains open, with a full lineup of exhibitions and events both in the museum and around DC. For your safety, all visitors will have their bags checked. See the complete list of restricted items and bag sizes.