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Artworks and cultural objects enter the Chazen’s permanent collection in several different ways, primarily through gifts donated by private individuals and purchases made by the institution with donated funds. Artworks can also be transferred to the Chazen from another unit of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. When the Chazen acquires an artwork, it becomes one in what is often a long chain of owners, as the artwork passes from hand to hand over the course of history. This chain of ownership is referred to as an artwork’s provenance.

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What is provenance?

Most simply, provenance is the history of an object’s ownership, custody, or location, traced from the artist’s studio or (in the case of archaeological objects) the objects’ find site to the present day. For some artworks—like those the Chazen purchases directly from an artist—the provenance is brief, direct, and very simple. For other artworks and objects, it might be extensive, complex, or fragmentary.

The goal of provenance research is to document every owner whose hands an artwork or object has passed through; however, this is a very rare achievement. Research often hits dead ends and there are typically gaps within the provenance, sometimes even during important periods such as 1933–45, when Germany, and then much of Europe, was under National Socialist ( Nazi) control. A gap in the provenance does not mean that an artwork was stolen but is an indication that museum staff need to continue efforts over time to close that gap as new information becomes available. Inevitably, though, a lot of unknowns will remain, especially for objects like prints and photographs that are produced in multiple, making it harder to distinguish one impression or print from another.


How is the Chazen approaching provenance research?

The Chazen’s curatorial staff have embarked on a project to more fully research the provenance of broad sections of the museum’s collection of 23,000 objects and to identify those objects that might have compelling or unsettling backstories warranting more in-depth research into their ownership history. As a first step, Chazen curatorial staff, with the assistance of UW–Madison graduate student project assistants and student curatorial assistants, are ensuring that the fullest information we currently have at hand in our object files and other institutional records is accurately recorded in our collection database, which is accessible to the public here. Once an artwork is selected, scroll down and click the “provenance” tab to view the information currently recorded in the database.

The next step will be to confirm this information (where currently unconfirmed) and fill in the gaps in the provenance record by conducting archival research, much like a detective or journalist might when cracking a case or fact-checking a story. To do so, curators might look at the backs of paintings to identify seals, stamps, and old labels not previously recorded; visit the archives of a known collector to reference inventories of their collection; or reference an artist’s letters or a gallery’s sales books to find details on to whom an artwork was sold or from whom it was purchased, when, and for what price. Over time, the “provenance” tab for artworks that have been researched may grow to be more specific and more extensive. We will share highlights and discoveries our research reveals as the project develops.

Chazen staff and student assistants are beginning this process with artworks with no provenance currently recorded in the online database, Greek and Roman antiquities, artworks that have gaps in their current provenance during the National Socialist (Nazi) era, pre-modern South and Southeast Asian sculpture, and pre-modern Chinese artworks. In the future, attention will also be directed toward African artworks that left the continent during the colonial period and pre-modern South and Central American artworks.

In addition, curatorial staff regularly assess the provenance of artworks being considered for acquisition through gift, purchase, bequest, or transfer; conduct research to confirm the information received (where possible), and fill in gaps for artworks of a sensitive nature. This information is taken into consideration when artworks presented as gifts are offered to the museum and may affect whether the museum can accept an offered gift.

Why is it important for museums to conduct this research?

By researching provenance, we can learn important aspects of the history of an artwork or object. We may learn more about the context in which the artwork was commissioned from the artist, or more details about how collectors formed their collections, why collectors purchased (or sold) specific artworks, or how the value of artwork changed over time and circumstances. These aspects are all important to the studies of art history, the economy, and collecting practices, among other disciplines. We may learn that certain artworks were in the collections of European princes and kings. We may also learn that certain artworks were looted or stolen at one point in their past, and if such information were to be discovered, we would work to find an appropriate and conscientious solution. It is important for Chazen staff, UW students, and the public to understand how artworks and objects from around the world have come to reside in Madison, Wisconsin, within the Chazen’s collection.

National museum organizations, such as the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), to which the Chazen belongs, have set professional standards for member institutions. Under their guidelines, museums must do due diligence to ensure that objects entering their collection have not been illegally acquired or previously transferred by parties that did not have proper authority to sell or give the artwork or object. They also encourage museums to make provenance information available to the public.

These guidelines for American museums were implemented following three important events that established agreed-upon standards internationally in regard to cultural property and Nazi-era looted artwork:

  • In 1970, a number of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) member states came together at a Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property for the purpose of creating an international treaty that went into force in 1972 or later (depending on date of ratification by individual member states). The treaty states that parties will take necessary measures consistent with national legislation to prevent museums within their territories from acquiring cultural property (antiquities) that has been illegally exported from another participating state. The treaty did not, however, contain a retroactive application, so the golden rule for museums in member states that have ratified the treaty is that they should have firm evidence that an antiquity was exported from a county prior to 1970 or have clear legal documentation that the archaeological material was legally exported after that date. Read the AAM’s standards on Archaeological Material and Ancient Art here.
  • Second, in 1990, the North American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed by the U.S. congress. This act requires federal agencies or any institution receiving federal funding to repatriate Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. For more information on relevant collections held at UW–Madison in the Department of Anthropolgy, see here.
  • Last, the 1998 Washington Conference resulted in the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. These principles adopted by the 44 attending nations state that artwork confiscated by the Nazis during the National Socialist era (and not yet restituted) should be identified within collections and that archives should be open to researchers. If artwork is discovered within a collection to have been confiscated by the Nazis (and not yet restituted), institutions should publicize this artwork and take steps needed to reach a “just and fair solution” with the families of the prior owners. Read the AAM’s standards on the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi era here.

This list of standards may grow soon, as France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England are beginning to grapple with the history of their colonial project in Africa, and world-wide standards regarding the colonial looting of African artwork could be drawn up in the future as well.


What is provenience?

Another term used frequently in discussing an object’s provenance is provenience. Provenience refers to an object’s find site, most often used in an archaeological context. The provenience indicates from where a piece was excavated. Artworks and objects in the Chazen’s collection will always have provenance (no matter how short), and sometimes—like for ancient Greek or Roman vessels—both provenance and provenience, but rarely will they only have provenience, given that they have been acquired by a museum.