How was the investigation conducted?
Provenance research takes place in two phases. In the first one, a museum checks whether objects in its collection have a problematic provenance. In the second one, questionable objects are subjected to closer scrutiny.
In the first phase the museums subdivides its holdings into acquisition periods: 1933–1940, 1948–1954, and 1955–present. Only objects with so-called ‘recognition value’ qualify for investigation. These constitute primarily paintings, drawings, silver objects, and exceptional pieces of furniture. Jewish ritual objects are always investigated. The Museums Association has compiled a list that museums can consult. Works acquired prior to 1933 or made after 1945 are not taken into account in the investigation. In this initial probe, museums consult their own archives, annual reports, old registration cards, the acquisitions register, and former staff members. The museums also closely examine the works of art themselves. Labels and annotations on the back or bottom of an object, such as an auction number, can all be clues. Museums subsequently focus specifically on distinguishing features particularly relevant to the acquisition period. For example, works acquired between 1933 and 1940 at German auction houses or from art dealers, or later in German occupied territories such as Austria, receive special attention. This also applies to works whose rightful owners could not be found, and which the Netherlands Art Property Foundation put up for auction between 1949 and 1952.
Specific provenance research
Phase two begins after this pre-selection, and involves ‘zooming in’ on problematic objects. The museums investigate whether involuntary loss of property indeed occurred in these cases, for which the Museum Acquisitions Project Team is consulted. The project team often conducts research itself in more specific archives and places its art-historical expertise at the service of the museum investigation.
Some art museums are left out of the investigation. This could be because a collection consists of only modern art from after 1945, or because a museum only has generic objects, such as tiles. These kinds of objects cannot be traced to a specific owner because they were produced in large numbers and have no recognition value. For this or other legitimate reasons, over 400 museums did not take part in this provenance investigation.