Mind the Gap: researching ownership history of ancient artifacts during the Nazi era

by Anne Dunn-Vaturi

In 2000, The Met launched the Provenance Research Project, following the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated art. On the occasion of the International Day of Provenance Research on April 14, 2021, I would like to describe how the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at The Met contributes to the Provenance Research Project List, or Gap List.

All provenance information for Ancient Near Eastern objects that is known to us is available on the Museum’s website, and I continue to review and refine previously completed records. Most of the 4,765 objects acquired since 1933 were found during archaeological excavations in the Middle East. I often have little information about the remaining objects that entered the collection as gifts or purchases. 185 artworks missing provenance between 1933 and 1945, that were located, or likely located, in Continental Europe during that period, are posted on the Gap List.

Ancient art from the Middle East represents a small portion of the Nazi cultural plunder from European Jewish collections. This classification is not part of the dozens of retrieved albums created by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a Nazi task force in charge of art looting headed by Alfred Rosenberg. Nevertheless, the online Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume gives us an overview of Mesopotamian and Iranian antiquities confiscated by the ERR. None of the objects now in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art appear in the database but identifications are of course difficult because only a few records have photographs. The Luristan bronzes, objects from Western Iran widespread on the art market in the 1930s, correspond to one of the largest groups recorded as “Persien” by the ERR agents. Therefore, about 90 objects from Luristan, or said to be from Luristan acquired by The Met after 1933 and missing ownership information between 1933 and 1945, have recently been added to the Gap List.

(Figure 1) Tessera, ca. 1st-2nd century A.D., Syria, probably from Palmyra. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry G. Friedman, 1955, 55.109. Copyright: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Figure 1) Tessera, ca. 1st-2nd century A.D., Syria, probably from Palmyra. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harry G. Friedman, 1955, 55.109. Copyright: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first object I considered for the Gap List is a Palmyrene tessera because it was in a Jewish collection in Germany in the early twentieth century and its ownership history was not documented before 1955, the year it was given to The Met (Figure 1). This stamped token was previously in the collection of Moritz Sebastian Sobernheim (1872–1933), a Jewish archaeologist and German government official, who died on January 5, 1933, in Berlin. Sobernheim probably collected the tessera at Palmyra during his travels in Syria. His widow, Clara Sobernheim (1888–1963), and their daughter Marianne, arrived in the United States in April 1938 after traveling through Europe. I have not been able to confirm whether the tessera arrived in the United States with the rest of the Sobernheim collection in the late 1930s, but what appeared at first as a red flag was probably just an object that had been safely guarded by the family.

The Sobernheim collection of Ancient Glass was sold at the Stack’s Galleries in New York, on April 19, 1952. The same year Clara Sobernheim gave a Syrian robe to The Met and her son Rudolf Sobernheim made a gift to the American Numismatic Society. Based on these transfers, the tessera was probably acquired from the Sobernheims in the early 1950s by Harry G. Friedman (1881–1965) and Adele O. Friedman (1874–1960), great benefactors to The Met who subsequently gave it to the Museum.

Priority is also given to objects that changed hands in Continental Europe during the Nazi era, such as this torque, said to be found in Austria and sold to Ernest Brummer in Paris in 1935 (47.100.13). My research led to the identification of the source of the transaction, a certain Dr Kreuger, who sold two torques later purchased by The Met in 1947 from the estate of Joseph Brummer, New York. The name of the dealer, mistyped Kreuger on the Brummer stock cards (Figure 2), turns out to be Dr. Nicholas Aristides Karger (1901–1982).

Karger, of Austrian origin, lived in France before immigrating to the United States in 1938 and obtaining US citizenship. As early as 1934, Karger conducted business with the F. Kleinberger Galleries and after the war, became manager of Kleinberger’s South American office. The identification of Karger in the collecting history of the torque not only puts us on the right track to research its provenance before 1935 but also contributes to the documentation of an active actor of the art market between Vienna, Paris and New York.

Providing an unbroken chain of ownership for each object acquired after 1933 is not always possible, so maintaining the Gap List is our priority. This allows us to signal objects missing information during the pertinent period 1933–1945. Hopefully, the pieces of the puzzle for those flagged objects can be put back together. Reconstructing the modern history of antiquities is part of an international effort in which The Met is actively involved. As an outcome of the German/American Provenance Research Exchange Program (PREP) established in 2017, “The Fate of Antiquities in the Nazi era” is receiving more attention: it was the subject of a session organized by Irene Bald Romano and Sandra Van Ginhoven at the College Art Association Annual Conference last February and will be the topic of an online Special Issue of the Journal of the International Association of Research Institutes in the History of Art (forthcoming 2021) edited by Irene Bald Romano and Meike Hopp.


Anne Dunn-Vaturi works as Research Associate in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She conducts the research and documentation of the provenance of the permanent ancient Near Eastern art collection for the Museum website. Before joining The Met in 2009, she worked at the Louvre and in particular researched the Antiquités Orientales Récupération (AOR) in the scope of the Mission Mattéoli.


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