Provenance Research and Circulation: Examples from the Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild Collection

This is the final of three pieces on provenance research that we are publishing in conjunction with the 6th German/American Provenance Exchange Program (PREP) in Washington, DC.

As art objects circulate over time, they connect various people, places, times, stories, and even historiographies. Although they cannot speak to us directly about their biographies, we can still interrogate them and related evidence in order to learn more about who once possessed them and where and how they were kept. As we do this, we can draw on the concept of circulation to direct scholarly attention toward how not only objects but also knowledge about them moves. Objects, knowledge, and their significance for those involved is continuously circulated and negotiated, yielding new knowledge and meaning in the process. Thus, we might endeavor to elaborate both the spatial and temporal dimensions of provenance research as integral parts of contemporary art history.

The first step in working round to the provenance of any object is to inspect the item itself, as I will illustrate here with three works held in public collections in Germany and the United States. Crafted at different times in different places, all three pieces were once assembled in the famous art collection of Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild (1843–1940), a German banker from Frankfurt am Main (Fig. 1). His collection comprised some 1,500 objects, including paintings, sculptures, Renaissance art, and Louis XV furniture, not to mention miniatures, tapestries, silverware, stoneware, enameled glass, and East Asian art.

Fig. 1  Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild (1843–1940). Source: Institut für Stadtgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main, S7P1998 05368. Used by permission.

A major objective of my provenance research at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main has been to identify objects from Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s collection currently held by the museum; to study their history of ownership between 1933 and 1945 as well as in the postwar years; and to research the biography of their collector, who was persecuted in Nazi Germany because of his Jewish background.1 These layers of history are manifest in the objects, albeit intangibly, thus making provenance research that much more intriguing.

Through PREP, a transatlantic program to facilitate knowledge exchange between museum professionals in Germany and the United States, awareness developed that the Museum Angewandte Kunst, The Met Cloisters in New York City, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) all hold objects that had once been in the Goldschmidt-Rothschild collection. This insight led to a research collaboration between these institutions after my colleagues and I resolved to trace the histories of these objects from their initial forced sale in the Nazi era to the acquisitions that brought them to their present-day homes. In this way, we could help fulfill the moral and ethical obligation “to assist in resolving issues relating to Nazi-confiscated art” elaborated in the Washington Principles of 1998. Our transnational collaboration made it possible to identify and evaluate a wide variety of archival resources for the systematic provenance research of these objects on both sides of the Atlantic.

Let us turn to the examples. The first (Fig. 2), held by the Museum Angewandte Kunst (12411), is an open-topped vessel made of two peach-like integral jade bowls intrinsically tied to three-dimensional foliated branches. Jade carvings with a peach motif (conferring longevity and symbolizing immortality) were popular during the Qianlong period of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). They also appeared in the Qing imperial collection. Yet a four-character mark on the piece, 乾隆年製 (Kien Lung Nien Tschi) makes clear that it is not imperial. Besides the issue of periodization, this initial Chinese provenance raises questions about how, when, and by whom the jade carving was brought to Europe, not to mention why, and whether it had been removed in a colonial context.

Fig. 2  Jade vessel, 18th century, China, 13.7 x 9.6 x 6 cm, Museum Angewandte Kunst, 1938, acc. no. 12411. Provenance undergoing clarification. Photograph used by permission.

The second example (Fig. 3) is a lavish silver and gilded silver beaker from the late fifteenth century. Held at The Met Cloisters (50.7.2a, b), its origin can be traced to the city of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. At the base, serving as legs, knights on one knee hold the painted coat of arms of the then mayor of Ingolstadt, Hans Glätzle, in whose honor the beaker was given to the town treasury. The underside of the beaker bears the city’s mark, a rampant panther. There is no maker's mark, but the piece has been attributed to the Ingolstadt goldsmith Hans Greiff (who succeeded Glätzle as mayor in 1498), based on its stylistic similarity to surviving marked examples, one of them also at The Met’s Cloisters Collection (50.7.1a, b). In contrast to the example of the jade carving above, we have some idea of this piece’s provenance history prior to Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s acquisition of the item. At the same time, we do not know overall what meanings and knowledge the object has embodied over time.

Fig. 3  Covered beaker, ca. 1470, by Hans Greiff (active ca. 1470 until death in 1516), Ingolstadt, Bavaria. Silver, gilded silver, enamel, and cold enamel. H: 39.4 cm. The Met Cloisters, 1950, acc. no. 50.7.2a, b.

A mythical seahorse at LACMA (AC1992.152.108a-b) is the third example (Fig. 4). A polished nautilus shell forms the seahorse’s tail, which is attached to the upper body of a horse made of gilded silver. A nude horseman holding the reins and riding the shell on one knee is attached to the gilded silver strap securing the shell in place. The seahorse's head is detachable, which means this fantastic table ornament could also function as an elaborate drinking cup. It bears no signs that hint at its original maker or previous owners; however, examples in the National Museum in Budapest and the Green Vault in Dresden have the mark of the Leipzig goldsmith Elias Geyer (1560–1634). Given that the nautilus shell would have originally been found in the Indian Ocean or western Pacific, we can also think back further to the transcultural human relationships that facilitated this material’s arrival in Europe and translation into a piece of art in early modern Germany, where it may have been part of a late sixteenth-century cabinet of curiosities.

Fig. 4  Seahorse, ca. 1590–1600, Germany. Silver gilt, nautilus shell (Turbo marmoratus). H: 17.78 cm. LACMA, 1992, acc. no. 1992.152.108a-b. Gift of Varya and Hans Cohn.

All three examples passed from one owner to another until Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild acquired them in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. With the partial exception of the beaker from Ingolstadt, little is known about the previous owners or under what circumstances the objects changed hands, but they continue to fascinate with the possibility of fresh insights into notions of provenance, space, and cultural geographies. For now, at least, the Nazi and postwar histories of the items have been untangled.

On September 5, 1938, Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild was forced to sell his abode, the Rothschild Palais, to the city of Frankfurt. He was then “allowed” to rent a small apartment in his former residence, which he occupied until his death in 1940 for the tidy sum of 25,000 Reichmarks per year. The Night of Broken Glass, that Nazi-orchestrated anti-Jewish violence of November 9, 1938, was followed two days later by the forced sale of Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s art collection, still housed inside his former residence, to the city of Frankfurt. The mayor, for his part, claimed to have “saved” the collection (Fig. 5) from destruction.2

Fig. 5  Objets d’art assembled by Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild in his palatial Frankfurt residence. The picture was taken shortly after the forced sale of his collection to the city of Frankfurt in November 1938. The seahorse in Fig. 4 is located in the glass cabinet in the back of the picture (left). Source: Museum Angewandte Kunst. Used by permission.

Earlier in 1938, Goldschmidt-Rothschild had commissioned an inventory of his collection with assessed taxation values (Taxationsliste).3 For tax reasons, the prices assigned to the objects were deliberately low. According to the inventory, the price paid by the city for the entire collection was just over 2.5 million Reichsmarks.4 He did not actually receive any money from the forced sale because those funds were transferred to a frozen account.5 After their seizure, the art objects were relocated. Some stayed in the Rothschild Palais, which was converted into a public museum as Branch II of the Museum für Kunsthandwerk (Fig. 6), now the Museum Angewandte Kunst. Other pieces in the museum’s possession were removed from the palace. With few exceptions, the museum compiled file cards for all the objects assigned to its care. Their new accession numbers appeared as they had in the 1938 inventory, albeit prefixed with the initials “G.R.” to indicate works of art formerly in the Goldschmidt–Rothschild collection. Among the hundreds of objects assigned to the museum were the jade (G.R. 1477), the beaker (G.R. 94), and the figural table ornament and drinking cup (G.R. 678). Other pieces, such as paintings, were transferred to the Städtische Galerie, and the sculptures went to the Liebieghaus.6

Fig. 6  Room inside the Rothschild Palais, ca. 1939/40. The building was transformed from Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s private residence into a public exhibition space of the Museum für Kunsthandwerk (now the Museum Angewandte Kunst), in which the appropriated collection was rearranged and displayed. Source: Museum Angewandte Kunst. Used by permission.

During World War II, the Goldschmidt-Rothschild collection was packed and stored in different localities throughout Germany. As a result, most of the collection survived the devastation, despite the bombing of the Rothschild Palais in 1944. Following the war, Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s heirs requested the return of the collection. Indeed, most of the objects in it were restituted by February 1949.7 Given the history of this collection, however, any objects in our museums attributed to it would still require further provenance research on a case-by-case basis, especially since the Nazi-era and postwar histories of how these came to be in their present homes are incomplete.

Our effort was transatlantic, involving traces of multiple layers of history in diverse German and American archives. I found out that the Frankfurt jade vessel was on a list of pieces that had not been included in the 1938 list of assessed values but had been added to the inventory in 1939 by museum staff. It was also included in a restitution claim made in 1948 explicitly for the list of objects that had been added to the inventory retroactively.8 Several years later, according to museum inventory records the jade turned up without any accession number and so was registered in January 1955. As per a settlement of March 1, 1960, between the administrators of the Goldschmidt-Rothschild estate and the city of Frankfurt, however, the plaintiffs officially acknowledged their satisfaction regarding the collection’s restitution.9 Clearly, from the present point of view, there are postwar gaps in provenance. Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that the jade has been kept in the museum unlawfully. This possibility suggests there could still be questions in the future about how to achieve a “just and fair solution” consistent with the Washington Principles.

In contrast to the jade piece, the silver beaker and the ornamental seahorse have an evidential paper trail. They were restituted and shipped to the United States in 1949, along with other treasures from the collector’s estate. Many pieces were sold at auction at the Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York on March 10–11, 1950.10 Provenance research at The Cloisters nonetheless illuminated that, although The Met had acquired the beaker and other works from the Goldschmidt-Rothschild collection in the same year, it had not purchased them at the 1950 Parke-Bernet sale. Instead, it had acquired them from a dealer, Rosenberg & Stiebel, at their New York location. The table ornament was among works from the Goldschmidt-Rothschild collection given to the LACMA in 1992 by the private collectors and donors Varya and Hans Cohn. For their part, the Cohns had purchased these items in 1950 from Rosenberg & Stiebel, too. Obviously, the return of most items from the collection to Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s heirs did not therefore culminate in its spatial reconstruction. Instead, it was dispersed among public museums, private collections, art dealers’ shops, and auction houses.

The story of these and other Goldschmidt-Rothschild art holdings exemplifies the outcome of recent provenance research into items that changed hands in connection with Nazi policies and practices. This work draws on a wide variety of historical sources that are distributed among public and private archives on both sides of the Atlantic. It took a network like PREP to facilitate discovery of the Nazi-era and postwar stories of the objects held in the three museums. The results of our joint research also demonstrate the complex histories of these works of art, which decode a jade vessel, a silver beaker, and a table ornament as both objects on the move and objects of cultural remembrance. From that perspective, we recognize objects from the collection of Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild as carriers of cultural memory that requires dialog with the past and a lively examination of the present.11 In the end, we are called on to understand the identities of such cultural assets as the outcomes of constantly changing (trans)cultural entanglements and political events.

Katharina Weiler is an art historian engaged in provenance research at the Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main.

I wish to thank Christine Brennan (The Met Cloisters) and Rosie Mills (LACMA) for their collegial teamwork and knowledge sharing. This essay was developed from a joint presentation we delivered with Yao-Fen You (Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum) at the German Historical Institute Washington on October 24, 2019, as part of the 6th German/American PREP Exchange Colloquium on Nazi-Era Art Provenance Research in Museums.

  1. Katharina Weiler, “Die Kunstobjekte Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschilds—Biographie einer Sammlung im Spiegel der Geschichte des Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt am Main,” in Gesammelt, gehandelt, geraubt: Kunst in Frankfurt und der Region zwischen 1933 und 1945, ed. Evelyn Brockhoff and Franziska Kiermeier (Frankfurt am Main: Societäts-Verlag, 2019), 139–53. ↩︎
  2. Account of A. Berg, March 8, 1946, Institut für Stadtgeschichte, Kulturamt 777, fol. 27r–30v.) ↩︎
  3. As required by the Verordnung über die Anmeldung des Vermögens von Juden (Decree on Reporting the Property of Jews), April 26, 1938; account of A. Berg, March 8, 1946, Institut für Stadtgeschichte, Kulturamt 777, fol. 27r–30v. ↩︎
  4. H. Bräutigam to H. Sauermann, June 25, 1938, Bayerisches Wirtschaftsarchiv (BWA), F 043, no. 7. ↩︎
  5. Rechneiamt to Kulturamt, December 27, 1948, Institut für Stadtgeschichte, Museum für Kunsthandwerk, 52, fol. 29r; A. Dick to Entschädigungsbehörde, January 4, 1960, Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden, Abt. 519, Wi-Ffm-11526N. ↩︎
  6. Anna Heckötter: “‘Das Hauptsammelgebiet ist natürlich die deutsche Kunst’—Die Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung zwischen 1933 und 1945,” in Gesammelt, gehandelt, geraubt, ed. Brockhoff and Kiermeier, 133. ↩︎
  7. Photocopy of “Liste der von der Stadt Frankfurt/Main zurückgegebenen Gegenstände aus der Sammlung des Freiherrn Max von Goldschmidt-Rothschild,” signed by H. Bräutigam, February 26, 1949, Museum Angewandte Kunst. ↩︎
  8. “Liste der von der Stadt Frankfurt a. Main im November 1938 übernommenen 90 Gegenstände, welche . . . nicht von der Stadt bezahlt worden sind,” October 21, 1948, and corresponding letter by H. Bräutigam to the Rechneiamt, Museum Angewandte Kunst. ↩︎
  9. Copy of the settlement (1 WiK 7405 und 7406), Institut für Stadtgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main, Rechneiamt IV.2, fols. 39–41. ↩︎
  10. Important French Furniture & Objets d’Arts . . . From the Estate of the Late Baron Max von Goldschmidt-Rothschild, Part 1 (New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc., 1950); Works of Art & Objets de Vertu . . . From the Estate of the Late Baron Max von Goldschmidt-Rothschild, Part 2, (New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc., 1950). ↩︎
  11. On cultural memory in the Federal Republic, see Aleida Assmann, Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) or, in the original German, Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2009). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Katharina Weiler, “Provenance Research and Circulation: Examples from the Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild Collection,” History of Knowledge, December 18, 2019,