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Provenance in the World War II Era, 1933 - 1945
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Provenance in the World War II Era, 1933-1945

From the time it came into power in 1933 through the end of World War II in 1945, the Nazi regime orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of objects of art and other cultural property in Europe on an unprecedented scale. Millions of such objects were unlawfully and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners. Some of these objects ultimately were transferred, in good faith and without knowledge of their prior unlawful appropriation, through the legitimate market and may have been acquired by museums. It is now recognized that extensive postwar efforts to return unlawfully seized objects to their rightful owners did not lead to a complete and comprehensive restoration. In light of this, museums in the U.S. and abroad have begun examining their collections to clarify the provenance of objects that were, or could have been, in Europe during the World War II / Nazi era.

The "Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era" issued by the American Association of Museums (AAM) recommend that museums identify collection items that were created before 1946, were acquired after 1932, underwent a change of ownership during 1933-1945, and that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between those dates ("covered items").

The Smithsonian Institution adheres to these guidelines and is committed to conducting research and making available information on objects in its holdings. As a general rule, taking into account the diverse nature of Smithsonian collections, a collection item, created before 1946 and acquired after 1932, is treated as a "covered item" if the collecting museum is unable to determine whether the item:

might have been in continental Europe during the Nazi Era (1933-1945) and/or

underwent a change of ownership during that period.

In addition, precedence in provenance research is given to paintings and Judaica for practical and historic reasons.

What is Provenance Research?

Provenance is the history of ownership of an artwork or other artifact and provides important information about the attribution (determination of authorship) of the object. Researching the provenance of collections is a fundamental aspect of curatorial work, but this research is labor intensive.

What is World War II Cultural Property?

World War II or Nazi-Era cultural property refers to objects that were unlawfully appropriated by the Nazis or their collaborators during the period 1933-1945. Beginning in 1998, the American Association of Museum (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued guidelines for museums concerning objects that may have been unlawfully appropriated during the World War II / Nazi era.

About This Website

The goal of this Web site it to make known information about collection objects available to the public and to acquire further information where possible. Inclusion on this list in no way signifies that an object has an uncertain provenance or was unlawfully appropriated during the World War II / Nazi era.

Learn more about the provenance of our collection objects in the object database.

begin your search now >

Continue your research using other available online resources.

research sites >

lost art databases >

provenance websites >