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Why provenance research?

The question as to the origin of objects in collections is an integral component of research into museums, libraries, archives, and the art market. Besides identifying art confiscated 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. Provenance research has long been part and parcel of the methodology of art studies in investigating questions of attribution and authenticity, the contents of private and public collections, and the formation and development of the art market.

For some years, investigation into the previous ownership status of objects in collections has frequently led to revelation of their unlawful possession as looted assets. At the latest since the media focus on Kirchner’s “Berlin Street Scene” (2006) and the so-called “Schwabing art trove” (2013 ff.), the National Socialist theft of art and cultural assets in particular has drawn the attention of both experts and the general public.

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Historic responsibility / moral obligation

The unique nature of the Holocaust places a moral obligation on Germany that will never lapse. During the National Socialist era, cultural institutions and society in general participated massively in plundering the assets of people ostracised, persecuted, and murdered by the National Socialists.

The basis for provenance research into cultural assets expropriated through National Socialist persecution is the Washington Declaration, adopted at the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets by 44 participating countries, including the Federal Republic of Germany. Together with 43 other countries, the Federal Republic of Germany has committed itself to identifying cultural assets expropriated through National Socialist persecution and reaching a fair and just solution with the previous owners or their heirs.

In order to realise this obligation, in December 1999 the German federal and state governments and national associations of local authorities adopted a Common Declaration on tracing and returning cultural assets expropriated through National Socialist persecution. In doing more than simply researching into art objects, by providing biographical details on victims of persecution and thus also making visible the active role played by Jewish citizens in Germany’s cultural life, provenance research makes an important contribution to the work of remembrance. In the long run, this is perhaps its most important function: making visible, both in and on the collections, the traces of injustice inscribed there.

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