Provenance—or the history of ownership of a work of art from the time of its creation to the present—is a critical aspect of museum work in the twenty-first century. Understanding to the extent possible the provenance both of new works entering the collections and of works already held in the collections is critical to the mission of the Princeton University Art Museum.
Accordingly, the Museum actively conducts and carries out research on new acquisitions, whether prospectively coming into the collections by purchase or by gift, as well as doing so retrospectively on works already within its care. In doing so, the Museum seeks to meet and surpass both the requirements imposed by law and by cultural conventions and those required or requested by the museum field. This includes relevant U.S. and state law, international agreements such as the UNESCO Accord of 1970, bilateral treaties between the U.S. and other sovereign nations, and professional guidelines of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), all of which help to guide the Museum’s legal and ethical collecting policies and practices. In addition, the Museum collaborates with colleagues, experts, and officials both in the U.S. and around the world to consider the legal and ethical dimensions that relate to ownership of works of art.
It can be difficult to determine the complete provenance of many works of art. Objects are often bought and sold anonymously before arriving at a museum; past owners may 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 often incomplete. For all these reasons, gaps in provenance are common, especially for works whose acquisition can date back decades or even centuries. Therefore, the Museum’s provenance research remains a critical element of making the collections accessible to users, including those who visit the Museum itself or who draw on our web resources.
The history of investigating provenance within the museum industry has itself been, at best, uneven. Historically, the questions posed of potential acquisitions in past decades were often lacking, relative to today’s standards. Evidence that a work of art was legally acquired or in many cases exported by its owner may not have been requested or provided, leading to a dearth of inherited information regarding works of art that entered the collections in the past. Indeed, the documentation of export licenses was often scarce in the past, such that even the most diligent provenance researcher can struggle to find evidence of a work’s original exportation from a source culture.
Significant research has been expended at Princeton in key areas of provenance, such as research into the history of objects that may have changed hands during the Nazi era (1933-1945) in Europe, or works that are subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This work, and work in other areas of cultural sensitivity, continues. When appropriate, this research and other cooperative efforts have led to the transfer of ownership of certain works of art we have been able to determine exchanged hands inappropriately or even illegally prior to coming to Princeton. Each such instance requires deep and case-specific interrogation.
As a teaching museum, the Princeton University Art Museum is committed to teaching through its professional behavior, including its adherence to and interrogation of both legal and ethical standards. We believe that our ability to retain the public trust in us as an educational and cultural institution rests on holding ourselves to the highest standards of provenance and of ethical conduct. As such, the Museum has committed itself to an important project of both ongoing research and of transparency, through which its established provenance information related to individual works of art will be made publicly accessible via our Web-based collections portal and other appropriate sites. This is the work not of weeks or of months but of years, but is work that we feel is a vital part of our teaching and research mission.
If you have provenance-related inquiries or information, please contact Associate Director for Collections and Exhibitions Chris Newth at firstname.lastname@example.org