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The Master of Frankfurt

The Master of Frankfurt | Virgin and Child with Saint James the Pilgrim, Saint Catherine and the Donor with Saint Peter c.1496 | Purchased 1980 with funds from Utah Foundation through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Queensland Art Gallery Collection

Provenance Research Project

The purpose of the Provenance Research Project is to research the history of ownership of selected works in the Queensland Art Gallery's Collection which were produced before 1946 and acquired by the Gallery from 1933 onwards. These are works of European origin which may have gaps in their records, or vague or inaccurate information about their ownership during the Nazi/World War Two era.

What is Provenance?

Provenance means the source of something and, in a museum context, is used to denote the history of ownership from the time an object is created until it is acquired by the museum.

The provenance of an object can help establish its 'pedigree' and contribute to a better understanding of historical trends in collecting. The location of an object at a particular time can also suggest influences it may have had on the work of other artists. In the current research project, provenance is being used as a means of confirming legal ownership of an object.

The Provenance Research Project

The subject of Nazi art loot has become highly publicised in recent years following allegations that some objects confiscated or looted from individuals during the Nazi/World War Two era, and still unaccounted for, can be found in the collections of museums around the world. There has been concern that these institutions are making no attempt to identify those objects or return them to their rightful owners.

In December 2000, in response to initiatives taken by European and American museums, the Queensland Art Gallery established a plan to formally examine its catalogue and pursue further research in an effort to confirm the Gallery's good title to particular objects in its Collection. These actions are consistent with existing codes of ethics for museum professionals1 and also demonstrate the Gallery's acknowledgment of a moral obligation to determine whether there are objects in its possession to which it may not have legal title.

The research being undertaken has a particular emphasis on the Nazi/World War Two era, 1933–45, and the Gallery is following the standards either established or endorsed by various professional bodies. The objects under scrutiny are paintings and sculpture of European origin produced before 1946 and acquired by the Gallery from 1933 onwards. These objects may have gaps in their records, or vague or inaccurate information regarding their ownership during the period of Nazi rule.

Documentation held by the Gallery has been re-examined, and the research team has consulted widely in an attempt to fill any gaps in these records. Recently declassified World War Two documents released by European and American governments, and newly published literature, are two additional avenues which have been pursued.

The nature of this work is time-consuming and arduous but, using the resources available, the Gallery is attempting to create the most complete history possible for each object in question. Generally it is difficult to produce an accurate history of an art object, as not all owners are inclined to maintain documentation which record the movements from one party to another. Such documentation can also be either abandoned intentionally or lost by accident, during peacetime or periods of civil unrest and armed conflict. Objects which are passed on as heirlooms within families are often accompanied by oral history, which becomes distorted or lost within a generation or two, and objects sold through dealers and auction houses are frequently consigned on the understanding that the identity of the vendor remains anonymous. All these circumstances can make it extremely difficult for the researcher seeking to compile an accurate and unbroken history of ownership.

The Queensland Art Gallery Board of Trustees recognises the importance of this project and of disclosing the results of this research. Consistent with the practice of other institutions, these results are posted on the Gallery's website. The advantages of using this medium include widespread ease of accessibility, and the greatest opportunity in reaching parties which may be able to add to the provenance information already held. Information gathered in this manner may assist the Gallery to complete its documentation and, in the event that it identifies an illicitly traded object, to restitute that object to its rightful owner.

1 International Council of Museums, Code of Ethics for Museums (2004); Museums Australia, Code of Ethics for Art, History & Science Museums (1999).