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Provenance in the World War II Era, 1933 - 1945
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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. It is also something akin to performing detective work.

The difficulties researchers face are numerous. It can be more common for a collection item to have an incomplete ownership history than a complete one. Indeed, the provenance of many works of art and other objects may never be revealed fully no matter how much research is performed.

In particular to provenance research at the Smithsonian Institution, the collections are very diverse in nature and subject matter, from works of art to live animals, from rare books to spacecraft. As a result of this diversity, only a small percentage of the Smithsonian holdings falls under the parameters of the AAM and AAMD guidelines concerning Nazi-appropriated objects, including the added focus on European paintings and Judaica. The Smithsonian adheres to these guidelines where applicable, and has given priority to research on European paintings and Judaica, with ancillary emphasis on European sculpture.

Please click here for more information about the Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative's current projects and collaborations.

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

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