The National Gallery of Victoria undertakes ongoing research to establish the chain of ownership (provenance) of works of art in its collection.
Provenance research is an important activity undertaken by museums and galleries worldwide. Not only can it help establish legal ownership at a given time or period, but provenance research can also highlight collecting trends and shifts in taste. Provenance research also aids curators, scholars and researchers in their understanding of social and cultural history. Recognising this, the NGV has for many decades published in its scholarly catalogues known provenance details of works in its possession.
Ideally, every time a work of art changes ownership this information is recorded; however, for many reasons this has not always been possible. When this occurs, gaps appear in the provenance record, and this missing information is not always recoverable.
There are many explanations for why these gaps appear. Often records of transactions simply do not exist, for instance when looking for historical documents that have not been preserved and also when a particular dealer has ceased operating and their records have not survived. Also, people who sell or acquire works of art may demand anonymity, which can create a break in the provenance that is unlikely to be recovered.
In recent years, there has been worldwide interest by governments, art galleries, museums, scholars, historians and the public to clarify the provenance of works of art during the period of systematic looting and confiscation undertaken by the Nazi regime from 1933–45. To this end, in 2000, the NGV was the first Australian gallery to publish on its website details of a number of works that have gaps in their recorded provenance during these critical years.
Resolving provenance gaps during periods of armed conflict is often problematic as many records are destroyed. Furthermore, intentional destruction of collection records was a common occurrence during the Second World War (1939–45) as many families attempted to safeguard their valued possessions. Thus, for many reasons complete provenance during this era is often difficult to establish.
It is also not always the case that an object sold either by an owner who has been a victim of confiscation, or a dealer who was known to have been involved in the disposal of improperly obtained works, implies that a particular piece was looted. The art market was very active during the war years, even in cities under German occupation, particularly Paris. There are many instances of artists and collectors legitimately selling objects through dealers who were known to collaborate with occupying forces.
The NGV here provides a comprehensive list of European paintings in its collection that have incomplete provenance for the period 1933–46. The known provenance of these works is also included. These details are published as an aid to researchers and partly in the hope that those consulting this list may provide information to fill in these gaps.
It is vital to note that a gap in recorded provenance does not imply that paintings were subject to improper or illegal confiscation.