Provenance is the history of the ownership of an object at any particular time. Ideally, a complete provenance history includes who owned an art object from its creation to the present, including every transfer of ownership, sale, and location.
Provenance research can reconstitute collections that have been dispersed over time.
It is particularly important for the years 1933 to 1945, which saw the systematic confiscation and forced sales of art owned by Jewish families in continental Europe.
The Frick Art Reference Library's rich collections of monographs, catalogues raisonnés, and exhibition and auction catalogs, and its Photoarchive of more than 1.2 million images with supporting documentation, make it an essential resource for provenance research. In addition to the Library's collections, provenance research is supported by the research tools it has created.
The documentation typically includes date, engravings, other reproductions, exhibition history, collection history, description, bibliography, and notes for each work of art photographed. Used in conjunction with the Library's other resources, it has facilitated the restitution of lost or stolen works of art in many international cases.
A case in point is Gustav Klimt's Portrait of a Lady (“Damenbildnis en face"), which had been confiscated from Bernhard Altmann by the German National Socialists in June 1938. On May 4, 2004, the Austrian government returned the painting to its rightful owners. Crucial documentation preserved in the Library supported the case to return this work to the Altmann heirs.
Recently included for sale at Christie's London, Sale 7701, Impressionist/Modern Art, February 4, 2009, London, King Street
The Library is one of the largest repositories of auction catalogs in North America. Its collection consists of more than 90,000 catalogs, with an annual acquisitions rate of approximately 1,500 items. Catalogs from more than 1,000 auction houses in Europe, Australia, and the Americas, ranging in date from the eighteenth century to the present, are represented in the collection.
For auction catalogs holdings, search the catalog.
The catalogue raisonné is an important tool for provenance research and for establishing the oeuvre of an artist; it normally contains provenance for each version of a work of art.
The Library has a comprehensive collection of catalogues raisonnés for artists working up to 1960.
International Federation for Art Research maintains a database of catalogues raisonnés.
When and where works of art were exhibited and who owned them at that particular moment in time constitute essential evidence for their provenance. The Library's collection of exhibition catalogs, defined as (at least) a listing of the works of art on show in an exhibition, is an important resource. The Library acquires current exhibition catalogs and collects catalogs retrospectively. Some of these have been digitized in the M. Knoedler & Company, Macbeth Gallery, and Gilded Age projects.
Title page from Catalogue of Axel Beskow's Art Collection (1921)
Frick Research Tools
- Archives Directory for the History of Collecting in America
- Montias Database
- World War II Provenance Bibliography
Outside Links to Free Resources
- Art Sales Index
- Bibliografie e biblioteche d'arte
- Catálogo de objetos artísticos sustraidos
- Commission for Art Recovery
- Confiscation of Jewish Property in Europe, 1933-1945: New Sources and Perspectives
- Cultural plunder by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg: Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume
- Datenbank "Entartete Kunst": Gesamtverzeichnis der 1937 in deutschen Museen beschlagnahmten Werke der Aktion "Entartete Kunst"
- Datenbank "Sammlung des Sonderauftrages Linz"
- Datenbank zum "Central Collecting Point München"
- "Entartete" Kunst: Typescript Inventory
- Galerie Heinemann Online
- Getty Provenance Index