Provenance Research

The formal synopsis of an artwork’s or other cultural object’s possession history from its creation to the present is known as its provenance. For auction houses, dealers and private collectors a solid and seamless provenance prepared by external investigators can help verify authenticity, affirm legal title, support an asking price and demonstrate a modicum of compliance with ethical guidelines. For art museums and other memory institutions, provenances are certificates of transparency in acquisition and public accountability in use. Presenting the most recent receipt or other such acquisition or accession document does not constitute a provenance — although it might contribute to one. But provenance documents of all sorts are themselves often faked. In all imaginable scenarios these stakeholders know where something currently is, but not necessarily where it was before.

For the heirs of those victimized by theft, looting, confiscation and forced sales during the Nazi era the situation is the other way around. They know where something once was, but have little or no idea where it currently is.

In both scenarios, researching the provenance of a cultural object or work of art is inseparable from researching the biographies of the people connected with it. This often reveals stories within stories that stretch far back into the past or fan out into the present with surprising and sometimes unsettling consequences. Provenance research is detective work. It requires a street-level knowledge of historical events, procedural expertise in compiling evidence and unencumbered access to archival materials and collections. We serve as agents in fact in confidential provenance research projects anywhere.

While our provenance research and other services are strictly confidential, our historical projects are public undertakings in which provenance research plays a major role. In some cases, contributions from the public are of great importance in moving beyond the inevitable impasses encountered when researching the lives of refugees, victims of the Shoah and obscure figures of cultural history.

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