Provenance Research

Provenance is the history of ownership of works of art. Provenance research contributes to our understanding of the historical, social, and economic contexts that inform the production, circulation, and preservation of an individual work of art. It can also shed light on the history of collecting and the formation of taste. This second aspect of provenance research is particularly meaningful for museums like Carnegie Museum of Art that reflect the collecting interests of specific individuals. Documenting provenance can also serve as a means of authenticating a work of art and establishing legal ownership of it.

Provenance Research at Carnegie Museum of Art

Provenance research is a regular, ongoing part of curatorial work at Carnegie Museum of Art and is essential to documenting the objects in the permanent collection. Provenance research is conducted by museum staff, fellows, and interns, and information is continually added to individual object records. Although the museum seeks to verify and expand the provenance information associated with individual works of art in its collection, establishing a complete history of ownership can often prove challenging. The museum therefore encourages the sharing of information that might help clarify the provenance of objects in its collection.

Holocaust-Era Provenance Research

This era is defined as the period encompassing the Nazi Party’s rise to power and its defeat (1932–45). In recent years provenance research has assumed particular importance due to increased awareness of the extent of the cultural dislocation caused by World War II and the Holocaust. While many works of art confiscated or looted before and during the war were restored to their original owners or countries of origin, others were not and found their way onto the international art market. In recognition of this fact, many museums are researching their collections to determine whether works of art that have entered their collections since 1932 could have been seized or stolen and not subsequently returned.

Following the recommendations of the American Association of Museums (AAM), the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets, Carnegie Museum of Art is actively investigating the Nazi-era provenance of the paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts in its collection. Priority has been given to works with unknown, incomplete, or otherwise suspect provenance for the period 1932–45, particularly works of art in the museum’s collection that changed hands during that period and were, or could have been, in continental Europe. Beginning in 2004, Carnegie Museum of Art began submitting records to the AAM-sponsored Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP). Works of art from the museum’s collections submitted to NEPIP can be found on the AAM portal. 

The museum is actively researching the Nazi-era provenance of objects in its collection and will increasingly be transferring detailed provenance information from the museum’s object files to the electronic format of the website. This work is ongoing, will be updated periodically, and will continue to be cross-listed with the NEPIP. We welcome new information on works of art in the museum’s collection.

Art Tracks: Provenance Visualization Project

Carnegie Museum of Art has proposed a project that will engage the public more deeply with works of art by bringing their histories to life. The museum is in the process of developing a technology-based interactive framework that will employ standard art museum cataloging data and best practices to allow users to visually chart the life cycles of art objects over time and across distances. The framework of the Art Tracks: Provenance Visualization Project will transform what are currently dry, unengaging museum provenance and exhibition records into lively historical narratives about art, museums, and history, thus enhancing visitors’ experiences of artworks both in the museum and on the web.

Learn more about Art Tracks progress and developments form our blog.