Research on provenance, or the history of ownership of a work of art, is a traditional part of museum practice. At the Princeton University Art Museum, it is a regular part of the research on any object that enters the collection.
Recently, however, particular attention is being paid to provenance research in keeping with the principles and guidelines issued in 1998 by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and in 1999 by the American Association of Museums (AAM), according to which museums should, to the best of their ability, determine and disclose the provenance for works of art in their collections that changed hands during the World War II era (1933–1945). Search the Museum's listings of works.
The AAMD and AAM guidelines are intended to help identify any works that may have been unlawfully confiscated during the Nazi regime and never returned to their rightful owners. The Nazi regime—led in this matter by Adolf Hitler and his second-in-command, Hermann Goering—looted works of European art from private collections. They also seized modern art, which they deemed “degenerate,” destroying some of it and trading the remainder. Many works of art seized by the Nazis were returned to the owners or their families after the war ended, but other works passed into the hands of dealers and made their way into collections and museums in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. In recent years, the museum community has been making a concerted effort to determine the past ownership of works of art in their collections and, if necessary, to make proper restitution to owners or the descendants of owners whose collections were seized.
The guidelines issued by the AAMD and AAM recommend that museums identify works of art created before 1946 and acquired after 1932 that were or could have changed hands in continental Europe during this period; disclose complete provenance information for these works, even if there are no gaps in their history; and continue to make ongoing provenance research a priority, paying particular attention to European paintings and Judaica, as these were the objects most likely to have been stolen.
It is difficult to determine the complete provenance of any work of art. Many objects are bought and sold anonymously; past owners die without disclosing where they obtained the works in their collections; dealers do not always make known the sources of their holdings; and the records of dealers and auction houses are frequently lost or destroyed. For all these reasons, it is rare to have a work of art without some kind of gap in its provenance. Therefore, while the works of art in the Princeton University Art Museum’s collection with an incomplete provenance between 1933 and 1945 are made public here, the presence of objects on the list does not imply that they were looted or improperly acquired. The works of art on the list have provenances that are, at this date, incomplete and in most cases still the subject of research.
The importance of provenance research at the Museum was made clear when it was discovered that Saint Bartholomew by Bernardino Pinturicchio, once the property of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, a Jewish resident of German-occupied France, was auctioned with his estate in 1941 without the assent of his family. The Saint Bartholomew had been purchased in 1994 through the New York dealer French & Company, Inc. In the 1990s, the Gentili di Giuseppe family began to pursue claims regarding the works sold in 1941 and contacted the Princeton University Art Museum regarding the Saint Bartholomew at that time. Acknowledging that the Museum had bought the painting in good faith, the Gentili di Giuseppe heirs wished to leave the painting in the collection. Following discussions between the Art Museum and the heirs, compensation was paid for their loss at an agreed-upon amount.
River Landscape in Moonlight by Aert van der Neer and the Visitation by a South German master were seized from private Viennese collections for inclusion in the vast art museum Hitler planned to build in his childhood home of Linz, Austria. River Landscape in Moonlight belonged to Baron Louis de Rothschild and the Visitation, one in a series of four panels showing scenes from the life of the Virgin, belonged to Oskar Bondy. Along with other confiscated works intended for Linz, both paintings were held at the Alt Aussee salt mines, southeast of Salzburg. On May 8, 1945 Allied forces discovered the holdings at Alt Aussee. They removed the objects to designated holding points that had been established for the purposes of collecting, identifying, and restituting Nazi-looted art. River Landscape in Moonlight and the Visitation were taken to the Munich Central Collecting Point and in 1946 United States Forces in Austria (USFA) returned the works to Louis de Rothschild and Oskar Bondy’s widow, Elizabeth Bondy, respectively.
The Princeton University Art Museum actively pursues provenance research on its collection of European paintings in an ongoing project. The web site will be updated as more information becomes known about works in the collection that have incomplete provenance and are are still under investigation. The Art Museum asks that anyone with further questions, concerns, or information about the provenance of works of art in its collection contact Betsy Rosasco, firstname.lastname@example.org.