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World War II Era Provenance Project, 1933–1945

View list of objects in the Freer and Sackler Provenance Project (PDF)

The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution recently initiated a comprehensive provenance research project. Its goal is to identify and clarify questions of ownership history for the Galleries' Asian artworks that were created before 1946 and acquired after 1932; underwent a change of ownership between 1933 and 1945; and were, or might have been, in continental Europe during that twelve-year period. 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 the 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.

This project advances the Smithsonian's ongoing and serious commitment to undertake provenance research of its collections consistent with the directives issued by the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). To this end, the Freer and Sackler Galleries are working to identify objects in their collections of Asian art that fall under the scope of the AAM and AAMD guidelines. This research will be published on the Freer and Sackler's website as well as the Smithsonian Institution's provenance website, with links to AAM's Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP). In this way, the Smithsonian will expand its dedication to making information about the history of its collections available and transparent to researchers and the general public.

The project will pioneer new methods and standards of provenance research for non-Western (specifically, Asian) objects and facilitate ongoing exchange between the specialists at the Freer and Sackler and those working with other Asian collections who are grappling with similar issues and challenges.

Historical Context

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.

Beginning in 1998, AAM and AAMD issued guidelines for museums concerning objects that may have been illegally confiscated during the World War II era. In an agreement reached with the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in 2000, AAM and AAMD further recommended that museums make all currently available information accessible to online researchers to aid the discovery and identification of any objects that were unlawfully appropriated during that time. Under these recommendations, museums should identify works in their collections that were created before 1946 and acquired after 1932; underwent change of ownership between 1933 and 1945; and were, or might reasonably be thought to have been, in continental Europe between those years.

The most recent version of AAM's "Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era" is located on its website. AAMD's guidelines "Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era (1933-1945)" is published on its website.

AAM's Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal was created to provide a publicly accessible database of museum objects with gaps in their provenance between 1933 and 1945.

Provenance Research

The study of provenance—the history of ownership of a work of art—provides insights into the history of taste and collecting, illuminating the social, economic, and historic trends in which an artwork was created or collected. Researching the provenance of collections is a fundamental aspect of curatorial work.

Despite intensive scholarly provenance research, which is often a lengthy and difficult process, the full succession of ownership cannot always be entirely documented. This is due to a multitude of reasons. Over time, some records and documents were lost or destroyed. Sometimes, no records of transfer were created or retained. Often private collectors bought and sold objects anonymously through third parties, such as dealers or auction houses that are no longer in business.

World War II era provenance research is specialized work that seeks to determine whether any objects that have entered the museums' collections after 1932 could have been unlawfully seized by the Nazis and not subsequently restored to the rightful owners or their heirs. If full and unbroken documented provenance is not available for this time period, however, it is possible that the complete ownership history cannot be reconstructed; such a result is commonplace. Gaps in provenance of objects posted on this website indicate the current state of research but in no way signify uncertain provenance or unlawful appropriation during the World War II era.

Provenance research is a continuous and ongoing process, and object information will be updated on a regular basis to reflect our research. This website ultimately will include all Freer and Sackler objects, not just those with gaps in ownership. We welcome queries on the provenance of works in our collection; if you have any information or questions, please write to:

Elizabeth F. Duley, Head, Collections Management
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Attn: World War II Era Provenance Project
1050 Independence Ave., SW
MRC 707, PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012
duleyel@si.edu