Provenance case study: Kneeling Youth

last edited on Mon. February 20 2017

The following case study illustrates the type of research Max Koss conducted into the Smart Museum’s collection of modern art over the course of the 2015–2016 Association of Art Museum Directors/Samuel H. Kress Foundation Provenance Research Fellowship.

This kind of ongoing provenance research done by emerging scholars, even when results are inconclusive, remains a crucial part of the Museum’s educational mission.

By Max Koss
PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and 2015–2016 Samuel H. Kress Foundation Provenance Research Fellow

The information with which I started out indicated that the cast of George Minne’s Kneeling Youth had once belonged to Alfred Roller, a member of the Viennese Secession, and a friend of Julius Meier-Graefe. Meier-Graefe possessed the original cast of Minne’s sculpture and had copies made for distribution among acquaintances.

I had no evidence, however, for this provenance, so I started tracing the ownership history back. The Smart Museum had bought the sculpture from a gallery, which in turn had purchased it from an auction house. When I contacted that auction house, they indicated to me that the work of art was not, in fact, put up for auction by descendants of Alfred Roller, but could not provide information as to the identity of the consignor. The auction house did tell me, though, that the person who put the work up for auction lived in Alfred Roller’s old apartment, and that the sculpture had always remained in the apartment while Roller lived there.

At the same time, I reached out to the gallery that sold the work to the Smart, asking them to verify that the work had been owned by Roller descendants. The gallery referred me to an expert, Christian Witt-Doerring, who apparently had shared this information in conversation.

I contacted Witt-Doerring who told me that he personally saw the sculpture in the apartment of Alfred Roller’s son Dietrich in the early 1980s, and that after Dietrich’s death, his widow/partner sold the sculpture to the person, still not named, who consigned it at auction.

This case throws up the question of what constitutes “good enough” provenance. While I have the various testimonies by apparently trustworthy sources—art historians, lawyers—it does not constitute a paper trail, which would be considered the provenance gold standard. Similarly, there are no actual names attached to some of the last owners.

At the same time, since we do have indication that the sculptures were on view in the 1980s in Alfred Roller’s old apartment, we may assume that they were not in any way expropriated during World War II.