Provenance Research

last edited on Tue. January 31 2017

In late 2016, Max Koss, PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago and currently “Connecting Art Histories in the Museum” Doctoral Fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, wrapped up a yearlong research project into the ownership history, or provenance, of approximately 150 objects in the Smart Museum’s collection of modern art.

Koss was selected by the Smart Museum, the first recipient of the Association of Art Museum Directors/Samuel H. Kress Foundation Provenance Research Fellowship, to study a portion of the Smart’s collection with incomplete or missing provenance information. Provenance research is an important part of any museum’s collection stewardship responsibilities, but many smaller museums do not have the resources to conduct this research in a robust, systematic manner.

The works chosen for closer investigation (PDF) date from the period between approximately 1890 and 1945, and are of European origin. Those of particular concern were drawn from the Smart Museum’s collection of Central European art, are broadly speaking Expressionist in nature, and have therefore been possible targets for confiscation, looting, or forced sales during the reign of the Nazis in Europe.

No bombshells were uncovered during the research project that would put into question the Museum’s ownership title to specific objects.

However, the yearlong fellowship does offer an opportunity to shine a light on the sort of dogged, often-inconclusive nature of provenance as an area of research. In the coming weeks, the Smart will share three case studies drawn from Koss’s work that provide insight into the research process and individual discoveries.

They reveal how available evidence rarely leads clearly and unambiguously to a series of documented owners from the object’s creation to its acquisition by the Museum. Much more often, investigative “leads” take the researcher down blind alleys, with inconclusive results. The case studies underscore this aspect, and pose the question of what constitutes “good enough” provenance when documentary evidence is lacking.

This yearlong project has laid the groundwork for further ongoing provenance and other types of research into the collection, including the possibility of a program that furthers the Museum’s educational mission by training and engaging undergraduate students in object-based research.