Provenance is the history of ownership of an object from its creation to the present day. Ideally, a complete provenance documents every transfer of ownership, sale, and location without any gaps. Provenance research can help reconstruct collections that have been dispersed over time, as well as shed light on the historical, social, and economic context in which a work of art was created and collected. Aside from reflecting artistic taste during different decades and generations, provenance work has been particularly important for the years 1933 to 1945, which saw the looting, confiscation, and forced sales of works of art owned by Jewish families in Europe. However, a comprehensive effort to locate all of the cultural property that was seized by the Nazi’s during World War II and return it to its rightful owners remains one of the great challenges today, as so many vital records pertaining to the chain of custody of these works were destroyed, and the whereabouts of many objects remains a mystery.
Aside from this specific challenge, a complete provenance for a given work of art, particularly one predating the 19th century and the advent of the modern art market, is often difficult, if not impossible to reconstruct. Records of sales, particularly for paintings or objects that have not changed hands for several generations, frequently do not survive or even exist. Moreover, many private collectors buy and sell works anonymously through third parties, such as dealers or auction houses, which more often than not decline to disclose the seller’s and buyer’s identity. Finally, many 19th– and 20th-century art dealers and auction houses are no longer in business. In those cases, records are at best incompletely preserved, if not lost or destroyed. All these factors contribute to the gaps that commonly occur in a work’s provenance. Such gaps do not necessarily mean that the work was looted or stolen, or that it is a forgery, only that the complete ownership history was not properly recorded as it changed hands.
In accordance with international laws and treaties, the M.T. Abraham Foundation’s curatorial department continues to conduct research and update its provenance records. The Foundation is committed to this process until each and every work of art in its collections meets the criteria established by UNESCO in its archives and records management decision (PGI-90/WS/8).
The Foundation welcomes research inquiries related to its collections and provides referrals to other sources, as appropriate. For additional information regarding on-site research access and any other information on the collections, please login or contact us via the form below, phone or e-mail.