Provenance case study: Merz

last edited on Mon. February 6 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

This untitled Kurt Schwitters work in the Smart Museum’s collection is based on the Merzmappe (Merzportfolio), the third iteration of Schwitters’ magazine Merz.

The portfolio consisted of six lithographs. Of each of the six lithographs, Schwitters made 5 unique versions, by adding collaged elements to them. The Smart Museum’s is therefore numbered 5/4, i.e. the fifth unique version of lithograph 4.

The Smart Museum bought this work from the Chicago dealer Alice Adam Ltd, who had sold it twice to local collectors whose names we don’t know. I reached out via email to Alice Adam, who told me that she bought it at auction in Switzerland in 1975 at Kornfeld and Klipstein. I double checked on the catalog, which the National Gallery of Art has in their extensive collection of auction catalogs, where the work is described as being lithograph number 5, and inscribed 2/4. Both of these pieces of information are mistakes, as the illustration that goes with the entry is, in fact, an illustration of lithograph 5.

I have double checked on other entries on Schwitters works in a catalog from 1977, and there are similar mistakes in that, with illustrations wrongly attributed. This is an indication that the editing of the catalogs may not have been particularly thorough in general.

I therefore reached out to Klipstein, and they were indeed so kind to tell me that the Schwitters was acquired from Willem Sandberg, who is famous for being a long-term curator and then director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and a resistance fighter in WWII. I reached out to the Stedelijk Museum to see if they had related documents in their archives. Nothing turned up.

The Amsterdam lead opened up another possibility: that Sandberg purchased the work from Til Brugman, a poet and collector. Brugman apparently sold a few Schwitters items in the 1950s, and it may well be possible that Sandberg bought from her, as she was in financial difficulties. Brugman and Schwitters’ relationship dates back to the 1920s, when Schwitters reached out to Brugman and asked her to be in charge of organizing subscriptions to Merz in the Netherlands.

However, these remain only possibilities as the documentary trail has reached a dead end.