Where Do the Objects Come From?

Provenance Research at the Museum

The word "provenance" derives from the Latin provenire (to come from) and is used to denote an object’s origins. There are many provenance research projects underway at German museums today that seek to clarify the histories of certain objects and those of their original owners.

Provenance research investigates the origins and whereabouts of objects prior to their acquisition by a museum. It asks the following questions: who made the object and when; where did they make it, and for whom? Did it belong to (previous) owners, and who were they? Provenance research has so far concentrated mainly on the Nazi era between 1933 and 1945. Its aim is to identify objects that were seized or stolen during this period of mass persecution. With the exception of works made after 1945, the focus is on those objects that entered museum collections between 1933 and today.

Provenance Research at the Jewish Museum

19th century silver Torah shield
To whom did this silver Torah shield from the 19th century once belong?

The starting point of provenance research at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt differs from that of other museums: the object of our research is not our own institutional history and acquisition practice between 1933 and 1945. Indeed, the Judaica objects in the Museum, which opened in 1988, are the remnants and symbols of a once important culture. Parts of our Judaica collection come from the Frankfurt Museum of Jewish Antiquities, which opened in 1922 and was looted and destroyed during the November pogroms in 1938. For objects that were in all likelihood previously owned by Jews, the possibility that they were robbed between 1933 and 1945 is significantly higher.

Difficulties in the Research of Judaica Objects

Backside of a 19th century Torah shield
Torah shield. Reverse side, with signatures of the Historisches Museum Frankfurt (original signature) and the Jewish Museum Frankfurt, as well as hallmarks.

Research into Judaica objects is difficult for several reasons: Jewish ceremonial objects, such as artisanal and ethnological objects, are comprised of a large variety of materials, in styles shaped by the respective region. The makers are usually unknown; the objects are often manufactured in serial production. Since they are not of high monetary value, they are generally poorly documented. The Museum of Jewish Antiquities, which existed until 1938, displayed many items on loan from the Israelite Community and private individuals. Because the Community’s archive and museum records were destroyed on the night of November 9–10, however, the documentation of objects from this main source has been lost.

Another problem is the incomplete state of research on Judaica. There is a lack of necessary information on, for example, the market for these objects and trade in Judaica following 1945.

If you would like to learn more about provenance research, you can find additional information and avenues of research below.

Washington Declaration

With the arrival of this legally non-binding obligation, provenance research took on a great deal of importance for museums and collections. In 1998, it was signed by 44 states and 12 non-governmental organizations, including Germany. The signatories pledge to locate objects in their museum holdings that were confiscated or sold under duress during the National Socialist years and to search for their rightful owners or heirs and work toward finding fair and just solutions.

German Lost Art Foundation

Logo of the German Lost Art Foundation (DZK)
Logo of the German Lost Art Foundation (DZK)

The Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste or German Lost Art Foundation, based in Magdeburg, was founded on January 1, 2015 as a foundation under civil law. Like its predecessor institution, the Office for Provenance Research from 2008, the Deutsche Zentrum Kulturgutverluste promotes provenance research by financing short- and long-term projects at public and private institutions. Most of the provenance research carried out at German museums is financed through Deutsche Zentrum Kulturgutverluste project funding. The project at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt, in which staff researched the origins of objects from the Judaica Collection between May 2018 and April 2020, was also made possible by funding from the Deutsche Zentrum Kulturgutverluste.

Lost Art

The Lost Art Database, affiliated with the Deutsche Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, is the central database for cultural assets seized in the years of Nazi persecution. War losses in museum holdings, so-called looted art, and misappropriated cultural objects, particularly those stolen from Jewish owners during the Nazi era, are catalogued here. It is divided into two sections: public institutions and private individuals can enter lost items into a search request; objects known to have been illegally confiscated or relocated due to the war are entered into a found-object report. If, in the course of a museum’s provenance research, it’s determined that an object in their collection was illegally seized, it will be registered on Lost Art.

Guideline for Provenance Research

The Guideline for Provenance Research was developed jointly by several institutions: the Provenance Research Working Group, the Working Group for Provenance Research and Restitution—Libraries, the German Library Association, ICOM Germany, and the German Lost Art Foundation. It is heavily practice-oriented and aimed at anyone involved in researching questions that concern the provenance of cultural goods in their institution’s holdings. With case studies and a list of relevant addresses, sources, and Internet pages, the guideline is extremely helpful, particularly during an initial approach to the subject.