Skip to main navigation Skip to main content Smithsonian Home

home | site index | contacts

Provenance in the World War II Era, 1933 - 1945
   Provenance in the World War II Era, 1933-1945         Object Database         Additional Resources         News         SPRI         PREP    

Home  >  SI Collecting Policy

SI Collecting Policy

Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the World War II Era

Standard
Principles
Policy
Collecting Unit Principles
General Guidelines
Smithsonian Provenance Website

Standard

The American and international museum communities have issued guidelines for museums to assist museums in addressing concerns associated with possible Nazi-appropriated objects.

The Smithsonian adheres to the Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era, issued by the American Association of Museums in November 1999 (AAM Guidelines), and, where applicable, the Report of the Association of Art Museum Directors Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era, issued in June 1998 (AAMD Guidelines).

back to top

Principles

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 theft, confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, pillage, and destruction of objects of art and other cultural property in Europe on a massive and unprecedented scale. Millions of such objects were unlawfully and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners, who included private citizens; victims of the Holocaust; public and private museums and galleries; and religious, educational, and other institutions. 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 Nazi era.

Beginning in 1998, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Association of Museums (AAM) issued guidelines for museums concerning objects that may have been unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era. AAMD and AAM, in an agreement reached with the Presidential Commission for Holocaust Assets (PCHA) in October 2000, further recommended that museums make all currently available information about certain objects accessible to online research. Under these recommendations, museums should identify works in their collections that were created before 1946 and acquired after 1932, that underwent change of ownership during the Nazi Era (1933-1945), and that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between those dates.

back to top

Policy

  1. The Smithsonian shall not knowingly acquire collection items that were unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era without subsequent restitution.
  2. If the Smithsonian has acquired in good faith a collection item that is subsequently determined to have been unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era without restitution, the Smithsonian will take prudent and necessary steps to resolve the status of the collection item.
  3. The Under Secretary for Art will coordinate compliance with the AAM and AAMD guidelines and the application of Smithsonian policy on Nazi-appropriated objects.
  4. Each collecting unit shall apply the applicable provisions of the AAM and AAMD guidelines specified above to its collections management activities.

back to top

Collecting Unit Principles

Each collecting unit shall:

  1. establish authority and assign responsibility to approve, document, and ensure compliance with Smithsonian policy on Nazi-appropriated objects and applicable guidelines.
  2. designate a unit contact for inquiries on provenance for collection items in the collecting unit.
  3. incorporate applicable guidelines concerning Nazi-appropriated objects as set forth below.

back to top

General Guidelines

Applicability
Smithsonian collections are very diverse in nature and subject matter, from works of art to zoological specimens, rare books to live animals, archival documents to spacecraft. As a result of this diversity and the nature of provenance for many collections, only a small percentage of Smithsonian collection holdings fall under the parameters of the AAM and AAMD guidelines concerning Nazi-appropriated objects, including the added focus on European paintings and Judaica. However, the Smithsonian will adhere to these professional guidelines where applicable.

Provenance Research
Provenance is the history of ownership of a collection item and provides important information about the attribution (determination of authorship) of the item. 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. Inevitably a loss of documentation occurs over time, and memories of former owners fade. Sometimes no records of transfer were created or retained. Often collectors wish to remain anonymous when selling objects through galleries and auction houses, and their names are lost to future investigation. Even if records do exist, their location may be unknown or difficult to access because of distance or language impediments. In addition, not all records are reliable: records can be unclear, inaccurate, or give inadequate or conflicting information. Moreover, non-art and non-unique objects are often documented by a collection as a whole; once removed from that collection, there is no way to track or identify these items as formerly belonging to a particular owner. Given these conditions, it is more common for a collection item to have an incomplete ownership history than a complete one. Indeed, the provenance of many collection items may never be revealed fully no matter how much research is performed.

Smithsonian Implementation
In adherence to the Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era and Recommended Procedures for Providing Information to the Public about Objects Transferred in Europe during the Nazi Era, issued by the American Association of Museums, the Smithsonian will:

  1. Identify collection items in Smithsonian holdings that were created before 1946 and that it acquired after 1932, that underwent a change in ownership during the Nazi Era (1933-1945), and that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between those dates ('covered items').

    As a general rule, taking into account the diverse nature of Smithsonian collections, a collection item, created before 1946 and acquired after 1932, will be treated as a "covered item" if the collecting unit 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.
  2. For practical and historic reasons initially focus its research on European paintings and Judaica. The term "Judaica" is most broadly defined by the AAM Guidelines as the material culture of the Jewish people. First and foremost, this includes ceremonial objects for communal or domestic use. In addition, Judaica comprises historical artifacts relating to important Jewish personalities, momentous events, and significant communal activities, as well as literature relating to Jews and Judaism.
  3. Make currently available collection and provenance information about covered items accessible online through the Smithsonian's Web site www.si.edu/research/provenance and the AAM Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal http://www.nepip.org. The Under Secretary for Art is responsible for the Smithsonian's Web site about covered items including creating and managing the Smithsonian's account on the AAM Internet Portal.
  4. Give priority to continuing provenance research of existing collections as resources allow. Provenance research should be incorporated into ongoing research of collections.
  5. Undertake a reasonable inquiry into the provenance of collection items under consideration for acquisition and loan.
  6. Make a prudent review and respond to any claim that a collection item in its collections was unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era without subsequent restitution based on a fair evaluation of established facts, the applicable laws, and accepted ethical standards.

The Smithsonian Institution recognizes the importance of this issue and is committed to following the directives of the AAMD and the AAM. To this end, the Smithsonian collecting units are working to identify objects in their collections that fall under the scope of the AAMD and AAM guidelines. In accordance with the guidelines, priority in research has been given to European paintings and Judaica, with ancillary emphasis on sculpture produced before 1946.

back to top

Smithsonian Provenance Website

The initial results of the Smithsonian's provenance research are presented on its Web site http://provenance.si.edu, which lists works that meet the criteria of the guidelines. Inclusion on this list in no way signifies that a collection item has an uncertain provenance or was unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi era. Indeed, many of the collection items are well documented, with no gaps in ownership or questionable transfers during the time period in question. Even where there are gaps, this is not in itself a cause for concern. Incomplete provenance for any type of work of any period or origin is more often the rule rather than the exception. At this time, the Smithsonian has no reason to believe that any of the collection items included on this list were appropriated during the Nazi era. The Smithsonian Provenance Web site represents a work in progress. Its goal is to make known information about collection items available to the public and to acquire further information where possible. Currently available information about collection items is being presented now, and changes will be posted as more information is uncovered, including the addition of works deemed to fall under the project's scope or the removal of those that research reveals do not. Anyone with further information to report or questions about an object on this list should contact the Provenance Research Historian, Office of the Under Secretary for Art, at provenance@si.edu.

back to top