Understanding Provenance

Provenance is the history of ownership for a work of art. Researching provenance has always been an important part of a museum's responsibility. Knowing the geographic, personal and commercial route followed by works of art provides valuable insight into the context in which a work of art was created and exhibited over time, as well as information about the history of collecting. Documenting provenance can serve as a way of authenticating a work of art’s authorship and is an important means of establishing legal ownership of it.

Art historians have always sought to know the identity of previous owners, but such information is often difficult to establish. When a family has owned a painting for several generations, there may be no record of its purchase. Frequently, private collectors prefer to buy and sell works anonymously through dealers or auction houses, whose records may therefore not disclose the true owner. Moreover, many dealers and auction houses that were active in the 19th and 20th centuries are no longer in business and their records may have been lost or destroyed. Thus, it is rare to find works of art that have a complete history of ownership, and it is important to bear in mind that gaps in provenance do not necessarily indicate that a work was looted, stolen or improperly sold. Even after extensive research, it is not unusual for long periods in the history of a work of art to remain unaccounted for. Yet the DMA remains committed to establishing as accurate and complete a provenance as possible for the works of art in its collection.

Nazi-Era Provenance Research

Gaps in provenance that include or occur during the period from 1933, the date of Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, to 1945, the end of World War II, are of particular concern because of the possibility that the work of art was subject to Nazi looting or subject to a “forced sale,” in which the legal owner was compelled to sell works of art under duress from the Nazis. After the war, large numbers of works of art were either restituted to their original owners or their heirs, or were returned to the country from which they had been looted, but not to individuals. The purpose of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Nazi-era provenance research is to determine whether any works of art that have entered the collection could have been seized or stolen and not subsequently returned.

The Dallas Museum of Art began a Nazi-era provenance research project in 2000 to conduct provenance research on the Museum's collection of paintings produced in Europe prior to 1945, in accordance with the Guidelines of the American Association of Museums (AAM, now the American Alliance of Museums) Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era. The following steps were taken to establish priorities for researching the collection:

  • Identify for further study those works acquired after 1933, the year Hitler came to power, and created by 1945, the end of World War II.
  • Identify the paintings that changed hands in continental Europe during the period 1933-1945. A full list of these works was made public via the AAM’s Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP).
  • Exclude those paintings with complete provenances for the period 1933–1945. For such works, the legitimate transfer of ownership from one owner to another can be documented throughout this period.
  • Review the records of the paintings with gaps in their provenance that include the period 1933-1945 for the appearance of the names of people known or suspected to have been or had dealings with the Nazis, or to have been looted or otherwise victimized by the Nazis, for instance through forced sales. Assign priority for continuing, in-depth research to those paintings that can be connected to any of these names.
  • Continue to research the provenance of all works with gaps in documentation of ownership that include the period 1933-1945.

Through ongoing research at the Dallas Museum of Art, 141 European paintings in the collection have been reviewed and are confirmed to have safe provenance. There are currently 48 works with research pending. As more collector and dealer archives and other critical resources for provenance research become available, the DMA will continue to work toward resolving gaps in the provenance of all works in the Museum’s collection. The DMA is currently working to add provenance information for European paintings to its publicly searchable collection database.

Our future areas for Nazi-era provenance research include the collection of European sculptures, works on paper,and decorative arts, as well as the provenance of non-European works of art that might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between 1932 and 1946.

Provenance Research for Archaeological and Ancient Art

The DMA follows American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) guidelines and standards regarding museums and the provenance of archaeological materials and ancient art, including Native American art. These include researching the provenance of an object prior to its acquisition; making every effort to obtain accurate documentation of the history of the object, including export and import documents; and requiring all sellers, donors,and their representatives to provide to the Museum all available information and documentation.

In accordance with the AAMD Report on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art (dated June 4, 2008), the DMA recognizes the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (dated November 17, 1970) as providing the most pertinent threshold for the application of more rigorous standards to the acquisition of archaeological materials and ancient art. The Museum will therefore not acquire archaeological materials and ancient art unless research substantiates that the work was outside its country of probable modern discovery before November 17, 1970, or was legally exported from its country of probable modern discovery on or after November 17, 1970. In addition to compliance with the above procedures, the Museum will retain its right to exercise its institutional responsibility to make informed and reasonable judgments about the appropriateness of acquiring works of art.

The DMA also participates in the AAMD Registry of New Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art, an online registry that provides images and information on new acquisitions of select works of archaeological and ancient art acquired since June 4, 2008, the date new AAMD guidelines went into effect. The works that appear in this registry are only those that lack complete provenance after November 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and that were acquired after 2008. By participating in the Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art, the DMA seeks to make information about such objects freely available to students, teachers, visitors, source countries and officials, as well as possible claimants.

Contact for Inquiries or Information on Provenance

We invite scholars and the public to help us complete our knowledge of the provenance of works in the DMA’s collection. For inquiries and/or information, please contact the Museum at or send letters to Provenance Research Project, Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 North Harwood St., Dallas TX 75201, USA.