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Provenance Research at the Clark Library: Home

Research guide to provenance resources at the Clark library, with emphasis on the World War II era.

Introduction to Holocaust-era provenance research

Use this online guide to find selected documents, monographs, archival materials, and electronic resources useful for tracing provenance:  the ownership and movement of art objects over time.  Particular emphasis is placed on the World War II era. 

All materials are available in the Clark library; many are available in other libraries and some are also freely available via the internet.

What is provenance?

"Provenance"  (from the French provenir, "to come from") refers to the chronology of an object's ownership, custody, or location, traced from the artist's studio to the present day: who commissioned it, who has owned it, where and when and how has it changed hands.  In some cases, provenance may be used to confirm the time period and even the artist of a work.

The goal of provenance work is therefore to document every owner of the work and, if applicable, any custody or location of the work when it was not in the hands of an owner.

 Provenance research helps to:

  • establish a work's authenticity
  • establish the legitimate owner of a work of art
  • understand the history of the object for purposes of display, conservation and cultural importance

In recent years provenance has taken on a new significance, particularly in the museum setting.  Since the wholescale looting of objects during World War II, by force and by coersion, it is possible that modern owners of objects may not own them legitimately.  

In order to aid in the identification and discovery of unlawfully appropriated objects that may be in the custody of museums, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States (PCHA), the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and the American Alliance of Museums have agreed that museums should strive to:

  • identify all objects in their collections that were created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932, that underwent a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946, and that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between those dates
  • make currently available object and provenance (history of ownership) information on such objects accessible
  • give priority to continuing provenance research as resources allow.