What the F*#@ is Provenance Research? A beginner’s very-brief-intro to the wonderful world of PR

By Rachael Helmore

“Yeah, what the F*#@ is provenance research?” I hear you ask as you click the title of this article. Or, if you’re a provenance researcher or someone who already knows the answer to that question, you’re probably wondering how such a crassly titled article made it onto this blog.

Hello. My name’s Rachael, and I love provenance research.

Nope, I’m not a provenance researcher. But I have spent a big chunk of time researching and thinking about provenance research, and writing my Masters Dissertation, Exhibiting Provenance: The current state of provenance research in Germany’s public art museums. Yep, long-winded titled. Anyway – that’s a while ago now, but the stuff inside my little printed-and-bound-thesis remains something that I truly believe in and am immensely passionate about.

So: to celebrate the second International Day of Provenance Research, here is my attempt to share this passion with you. It’s a beginner’s very-brief-intro to the wonderful world of provenance research.

In many ways, this is also my attempt to explain to my family and friends what the hell I spent all of my time on last year, and why I’m so into it. Having said this, if you’re here and reading and you don’t fall into either of those categories, may I extend you a hearty welcome. This is for you, too!

What you need to know

Provenance means origin: where something comes from, and how it got here. Provenance Research (which I will affectionately refer to as PR for the remainder of this post) looks at the ownership history of objects: who owned the object then, who owns it now, when it changed hands, why it changed hands.

Art is just one kind of object which is changing hands all the time. It’s constantly being created, exhibited, bought, sold, moved, loaned, traded, donated, inherited. You get the idea.

Way back when

Big segue to World War II: the Nazis LOVED art.

Well, they loved some kinds of art. And they used art as a powerful tool: they confiscated hundreds of thousands of “desirable” artworks for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria, as well as gathering so called “degenerate art” for destruction, public mockery and trading. Public museums had their artworks confiscated. Private collections were raided, or confiscated, or pressure-sold for far less than their real value. Persecuted people – Jewish families and individuals making up a huge percentage of these – were forced to flee their homelands, selling or leaving treasured possessions behind.

Some numbers to set the scene: it’s estimated that around one-fifth of the world’s art changed hands during Nazi reign.[1] If accurate, this equates to more than three million artworks.[2] And, although the Allies tried to return works of art to their rightful owners after the war, loads of artworks are still missing – estimated at between 10.000 and 110.000.[3] Yep, it’s a lot.

Enter PR, stage left

This, my friends, is where PR comes in. It’s the missing link that allows us to piece an artwork’s full history back together; to find out where it comes from, and who its rightful owners are. PR is a discipline, a quest for truth, a call to justice.

Provenance researchers – who are absolute legends, by the way – look closely at artworks for signs of their histories. Labels, stamps, signatures, stock numbers and inscriptions on the back of a work can all help to confirm or contradict hypotheses, or otherwise serve as clues for further investigations. PRers also spend loads of time looking at archives, carefully studying acquisition records, inventory records and correspondence files – anything and everything which could help to form a more complete picture of the artwork’s ownership history.

I know, sounds like a pretty rad job[4] – but it’s no easy undertaking. It requires the investigation and analysis of the tiniest of details in order to really and truly classify a work as either “clean” or Nazi-confiscated.[5] On top of this, loads of important records have been lost, stolen or destroyed, or might even contain unreliable information.

90s Flashback

In the 1990s, Nazi cultural looting became a hot topic again on the world stage. The Washington Principles were issued in 1998 and signed by 44 countries (plus 13 NGOs – but no one talks about these), providing international guidelines for how to deal with Nazi-confiscated art.

Super importantly, the Washington Principles placed an emphasis on finding “just and fair solutions” once said-artworks have been identified. Such a solution may or may not look like said-artwork-being-given-back-to-its-rightful-owner-or-their-heirs [sidenote: the fancy word we use for “giving an artwork back” is restitution]. A different kind of just/fair solution might equally be negotiated between the parties in question.

Flash-forward

Since 1998, a lot has changed. Some countries have developed their own systems and processes for implementing the Washington Principles. Museums around the world are conducting PR, investigating their own collections to check whether they contain any artworks (or other objects) with “suspicious” or questionable provenance.

Meanwhile, a lot of countries and museums are just not dealing – they might believe that their collections are “clean”, they might not have the staff, funding or resources to carry out PR, or they might be afraid of what will happen if they start research and end up finding something dodgy. Yep, there it is, the age-old dilemma of museums not wanting to part with things in their collections.

In any case, PR has slowly made its way from being a secondary task conducted by a handful of art historians, museums and auction houses, to now unquestionably being a field and a profession in its own right. It’s a pretty big deal.

Welcome to the party

So that’s it. That’s provenance research. They’re the basics.

There is a LOT more that I could say. I haven’t even really talked about my own research, or touched on the fact that PR is also super important for investigating objects from colonial contexts (you guessed it, it wasn’t just the Nazis who took stuff that wasn’t theirs).

To be honest, trying to summarise PR has been a bit nerve-wracking – I feel like I’m introducing a dear friend of mine to all of my other friends; not knowing what they’ll think of her, if they’ll all get along, if I’ve provided the right amount of information to get everyone onside and in a good mood and relaxed enough so that they’ll want to talk to her when she arrives at the party.

But, like any dear friend, I know that her personality will shine through. She is kind, patient, honest, thorough, organised, inquisitive and just. She sticks up for the little guy and has an awesome moral compass. When I’m feeling down and wondering why I’ve dedicated my life to art, she firmly but gently reminds me of art’s intrinsic value: and that this value has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with expression, truth and human connection.

Who wouldn’t like her? I start to relax. Anyway, at the end of the day, it’s not up to me to convince people. She’s a big girl and can look after herself. Heck, she even has her own Day named after her. What a boss.

And today, on the second International Day of Provenance Research, this party is for her. Stick around, enjoy the good vibes, and get to know my kick-ass friend.


[1] Ori Z. Soltes, “Politics, Ethics, and Memory: Nazi Art Plunder and Holocaust Art Restitution,” in Ethics and the Visual Arts, ed. Gail Levin and Elaine A. King (New York: Allworth Press, 2006), P. 66.

[2] Norman Palmer, Museums and the Holocaust: Law, Principles and Practice (Leicester: Institute of Art and Law, 2000), P. 11.

[3] Petropoulos, as quoted in ibid., P. 12.

[4] Yep, PRers have often been referred to as the “detectives of the art world”. But, as kick-ass art historian and provenance researcher Dr. Meike Hopp reminds us, PRers are much more than just art detectives. For an awesome discussion of this (in German), see Meike’s article “Wir sind mehr als Kunstdetektive!” KMN Magazin 140 (January 2019).

[5] Tilmann von Stockhausen, “The Failure of Provenance Research in Germany,” in Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, ed. Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2013), P. 125.


Rachael Helmore is an Australian artist and freelance arts writer currently living in Bruchsal, Baden-Württemberg.

Website | www.rachaelhelmore.com

Instagram | @rachaelhelmore @hiergelandet

Twitter | @rachaelhelmore


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