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What is provenance research?

As a branch of art and history studies, provenance research is dedicated to determining the origin and history of objects from a wide range of genres such as painting, sculpture, and drawings, as well as objects of everyday use such as books, furniture, and silverware.

This often difficult and fascinating work aims to reconstruct as precisely as possible who owned the object in question and when it changed hands, from the time and location of its creation to its current place of storage.

In recent years, the focus has increasingly been on searching for art confiscated by the National Socialists. But even before the first such cases hit the headlines - Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting “Berlin Street Scene” in 2006, or the “Gurlitt art trove” in 2012—provenance research was an integral component of research into museums, libraries, archives, and art markets.

Besides identifying assets looted by the National Socialists, provenance research also serves to increase our knowledge of the history of collections and institutions and our understanding of the processes involved in the authentication, (value) attribution, manifestation, and appropriation of what are today defined as cultural assets.



Every art object has its own history. To determine a work’s biography, provenance research makes use of a combination of art-historical and historical methods. The initial clues to an object’s provenance are often provided by its physical attributes, such as techniques and materials used in its making and its dimensions. In a further step, the work’s art-historical placement is assessed: its attribution to a particular artist or school, the subject represented, and the work’s dating. Using pertinent art-historical literature, researchers then check whether the work has already been described by experts and, for instance, recorded in exhibition or inventory catalogues, lists of works, or art trade catalogues.

In addition, lettering, labels, seals, etc. on the object yield additional clues as to previous ownership, or at least serve as starting points for further research.

When and by whom an object was acquired can be determined with the aid of historical sources such as access logs, inventory cards and lists, and other museum records such as purchase and correspondence files.

Aside from the analysis of such in-house inventories, various archives and libraries at home and abroad may prove indispensable sources of information. The estates of artists, collectors, and art historians, as well as records of reparation and compensation proceedings, are consulted to this end.

Verifiable research findings regarding property and ownership relationships, as well as an object’s translocation history, are set down in a provenance chain (= provenance data), thus ideally forming a seamless biography.

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