Provenance Research and Attribution Knowledge of Ancient Middle Eastern Art

Until the 1990s, provenance research, or the history of ownership, was mainly conducted to determine the attribution and authenticity of an artwork. Provenance research grew significantly after the Washington Principles of 1998 and the accompanying increased awareness of the issues surrounding Holocaust-era art theft in Europe. Museums are also committed to documenting transfers of ownership of an object to avoid cultural patrimony issues related to questionably exported antiquities and colonial-era acquisitions.

Attribution is a considered opinion on the authorship of a work of art based on documentation, connoisseurship (i.e., specialized knowledge of an artist’s corpus of work), and scholarly analysis. Attribution is sometimes reconsidered in the course of an artwork’s life, which can pose additional challenges for provenance researchers seeking to identify a piece correctly, a task frequently complicated by a lack of photographic records. Difficulties are even greater for antiquities, which are often misidentified and inconsistently described in databases.

Within the field of Nazi-era provenance research, antiquities have received less attention than other categories of artworks. In fact, they are commonly dismissed as “multiples.” The following draws on my research into what happened to Middle Eastern antiquities under the Nazis.1

Connoisseurship and Attribution in Ancient Middle Eastern Art History

The process of attribution and authenticity is a fundamental component of connoisseurship and art historical knowledge. In art history, the connoisseur is an expert who can recognize stylistic characteristics specific to a particular artist or period. He or she often plays a role in museum acquisitions. For example, the purchase in 1908 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Johann, Duke of Saxony took place only after “the eminent art historians Max Friedländer and Wilhelm von Bode” confirmed its ownership history and attribution. Such experts could draw on the work of others. For example, the pioneer Giovanni Morelli (1816–1891) developed the “Morellian” technique of scholarship, identifying particularities in Italian Renaissance paintings attributable to the hands of specific artists. Minor details such as the renderings of ears could serve as such markers.

The study of Italian Renaissance art played a large role in the development of connoisseurship, and its methods were then used to analyze ancient art from Greece and the Middle East. Detailed stylistic connoisseurship is fundamental in the study of archaeological objects whose provenance is dubious or unknown. Hand attribution analysis in Greek art has a long tradition. Painters’ signatures on Greek vase paintings are extremely rare, and much like historians of art from later periods, Professor Sir John Beazley (1885–1970) attempted to identify the work of individual artists based on close studies of techniques and details. For works of art from the ancient Middle East, the methods of connoisseurship and classification have been applied to carved stone reliefs, seals and seal impressions, and figured ivories (Fig. 1) mainly since the second half of the twentieth century.2

Fig. 1  Syrian-style ivory openwork plaque with a striding sphinx, Nimrud, Neo-Assyrian period, ca. 9th-8th century B.C.E., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1964, accession no. 64.37.1. This sphinx belongs to the South Syrian/Intermediate style, combining influences from both North Syrian and Phoenician traditions. It’s a fine example from the “Wig and Wing” group.

The quality and quantity of the reliefs with repetitive figural imagery that decorate the palaces at Persepolis, in Iran, offer a suitable corpus for stylistic analysis, notably undertaken on-site by Michael Roaf in the 1970s. Roaf applied three different methods to identify the work of individual sculptors and teams of sculptors in the various buildings at Persepolis: mathematical cluster analysis (Fig. 2), examination of sculptor’s marks, and stylistic analysis.3 Roaf’s “data and profound knowledge of the stones” are considered key to the study of the Persepolis reliefs.4

Fig. 2  Attribute categories used by Michael Roaf in his mathematical cluster analysis of the Persepolis reliefs. Source: Roaf, “Sculptures and Sculptors at Persepolis,” Iran 21 (1983), fig. 4. Used by permission of the author.

This level of analysis has seldom been applied to objects from the Middle East. In fact, the type of classification found in the records of Nazi Germany’s plundering Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) turned out to be mostly approximate.

The ERR Records and Ancient Middle Eastern Art Classification

The ERR, a special task force headed by Alfred Rosenberg, confiscated over 20,000 art objects from Jewish private collections in German-occupied France and Belgium. The objects were processed through the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris between late 1940 and August 1944. Art specialists prepared detailed inventories of each collection, assigning unique alphanumeric codes and a registration card to each object. Moreover, dozens of photo albums were created by the ERR. Coptic textiles is the only ancient art category in the series of forty-three albums known to date. We can wonder what part of the some fifty-seven missing albums represented the antiquities because only a few photographs exist for this category of objects.

Indeed, antiquities represent only a small portion of the Nazi cultural plunder from European Jewish collections. They correspond to 3 percent of the searchable objects in the online Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume, a joint project of the Conference on Jewish Materials Claims Against Germany and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The database is an essential source for information about objects confiscated by the ERR, but we are sometimes faced with the limits of terminology. It seems none of the art historians working for the ERR were specialists in ancient art, which they catalogued with the means at hand in occupied Paris.

Middle Eastern antiquities are identified as isolated items from six Parisian-based collectors and dealers, none of whom specialized in this area: Jacques Bacri, David David-Weill, Alphonse Kann, Moïse Lévy de Benzion, Gabrielle Philippson Benard le Pontois, and Alexandrine de Rothschild. Such antiquities also appear under the “unknown” and “Furniture Operation” categories. Since we are dealing with “unknown artists,” the attributions used by the ERR agents and entered in the “artist” field are tied to a mix of geography, culture, and period: Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Neo-Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Luristan, Persian, Sasanian, and Phoenician. Here I discuss some issues with the classification applied to looted objects from ancient Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, encompassing present-day Iraq and parts of Syria.

Relief Bc 25 is the only Assyrian artwork with an image in the ERR database. Confiscated in July 1942 from Bacri Brothers, a Parisian art and antiquities gallery in the 8th district headed by Jacques Bacri (1911–1965), It was the only Middle Eastern piece recorded as such. In the inventory drawn up on September 10, 1942, by the art historians Walter Borchers (1906–1980) and Helga Eggemann (1914–1970), this fragment of stone relief (frieze of men) was primarily classified as Sassanian and later attributed to the reign of Sennacherib (705–681) during the Neo-Assyrian period.5 The importance of the relief might have prompted the ERR agents to conduct some research into it, unless they benefited from documentation from the Bacri gallery. In any case, a detailed description was added to the ERR catalogue as well as a reference, with a typo, to G. Contenau’s renowned encyclopedia, Manuel d’archéologie orientale. It is often possible to be quite specific in identifying the paneling of Assyrian reliefs. The fragment was assigned to the Assyrian military campaign against Lachish, the largest city in Judah after Jerusalem, documented in a relief rediscovered in the nineteenth century in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh, in northern Mesopotamia.6 The subject depicted on the relief, four deportees with Judean headdresses being escorted by an Assyrian soldier, has a dramatic resonance for contemporary viewers who know the ERR confiscated it from a Jewish collection during World War II. It was sent to a depot in Buxheim, Germany, repatriated to France in March 1946, and restituted a month later to Bacri.7

In March 2021, the Louvre launched its new Collections website, which is a great resource for provenance research. The database provides the names of previous owners of objects in the Louvre collection as well as provenance-related markings. Thanks to new photographs available online (Figs. 3a and 3b), I have been able to confirm the reattribution of a Sumerian sculpture from the collection of Alphonse Kann (1870–1948) that the ERR classified as Egyptian (Ka 563). Kann was a prominent French collector who left for England in 1938. His property in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris, was looted by the ERR in the fall of 1940. After the war, a large part of his collection was restituted. Out of gratitude to Georges Salles, director of the Museums of France, and other curators for their help during the war, the collector had expressed the wish to give to the Louvre a male head, in the Khafadje style, dating to the second phase of the Early Dynastic period (ca. 2700–2600 BCE) in Mesopotamia.8 The Louvre head matches the description of Ka 563: stone head of a man with “an inlaid eye and a broken nose” measuring nine centimeters high. This identification was recently confirmed based on a label with the collector’s number 72 still affixed to the sculpture (Fig. 3b). Kann’s number had been carefully recorded on the ERR registration card (Fig. 4).

Figs. 3a and 3b  Male head, ca. 2700-2600 B.C.E., Diyala (?), Iraq. Limestone. H. 9.3 cm. Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, inventory number AO 20113. Gift of Alphonse Kann, 1949. Image © Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier 2016.

The fragmentary statue was probably discovered before the systematic exploration of the Diyala region by the Oriental Institute Chicago unearthed this type of sculpture previously only known by isolated examples and misidentified as Egyptian by the ERR art historians.9 Henri Frankfort conveyed the state of prewar scholarship in a 1939 work:

Now hitherto pre-Greek art has almost always connoted Egyptian art. The reasons for this are both historical and accidental. . . . It is therefore of the utmost importance that we are able to place Mesopotamian work from the formative early centuries of the 3rd millennium B.C. beside contemporary Egyptian sculpture, in order that what is truly “pre-Greek” and therefore of general significance in each may be distinguished from what are merely national peculiarities.10

Fig. 4  ERR registration card Ka 563. Source: ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) Card File and Related Photographs, 1940–1945, National Archives, Washington, DC, microfilm M1943, p. 578. Digitized by Fold3 and used by permission.

Our knowledge of the scope of the Middle Eastern Antiquities looted by the ERR is hampered by the use of imprecise terminology and the lack of sufficient attention to this corpus. A few comments about attributions are noted in the ERR database, but mainly for paintings and decorative arts, not antiquities. Moreover, it appears that not all records created after the ERR registration cards have been completed yet. For example, objects confiscated in the context of the so-called Furniture Operation and catalogued as Babylonian under the “Asian” category have been reattributed to the broader Middle Eastern area, a few with an ancient geographical or chronological indication.11 The changes in attribution with additional information, sometimes noted in more detailed inventories, are not yet reflected in the ERR database, which can make finding these objects difficult. Today, more precise descriptions could be provided based on the rare photographs associated with these records. Despite all the challenges for provenance research, significant progress is possible. Hopefully, cross-referencing all the sources at our disposal will continue and will lead to future identifications.

Anne Dunn-Vaturi is a research associate in provenance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art).

  1. As an outcome of the 2017–2019 German/American Provenance Research Exchange Program (PREP), I contributed to two projects about “The Fate of Antiquities in the Nazi era”: a session co-organized by Irene Bald Romano and Sandra Van Ginhoven at the College Art Association Annual Conference, (February 12, 2021), and an online special issue of the Journal of the International Association of Research Institutes in the History of Art edited by Irene Bald Romano (forthcoming in 2022). I wish to thank Blair Fowlkes-Childs, former Research Associate, and Michael Seymour, Associate Curator, Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for their comments and knowledge sharing. ↩︎
  2. Margaret Cool Root, review of Investigating Artistic Environments in the Ancient Near East, by Ann C. Gunter, ed., Topoi 3/1 (1993): 217–45; Eleonora Pappalardo, “Connoisseurship and Classification,” in A Companion to Ancient Near East Art, ed. Ann C. Gunter (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2019), 103–127. ↩︎
  3. Michael Roaf, “Sculptures and Sculptors at Persepolis,” Iran 21 (1983). ↩︎
  4. Root, review of Investigating, 229. ↩︎
  5. Bacri Frères, Inventar-Listen, Bundesarchiv B323/266, here 4, 186, 188 (new pagination). ↩︎
  6. The valuable attachment of the relief to the Lachish conquest has been repeated in the Drouot (11/14/1975, lot 122) and Artcurial (5/22/2018, lot 19) sales catalogs, whereas Assyriologists list it with unattributed fragments awaiting further stylistic studies to allow more precise attributions to the reign of Sennacherib or later (Richard D. Barnett, Erika Beibtreu, and Geoffrey Turner, Sculptures from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh , p. 141, no. 752, pl. 514). ↩︎
  7. The current location of the relief is unknown since its sale by Artcurial in Paris (5/22/2018, lot 19). The omission of its fate during the Nazi era in the lot entry is puzzling, especially since we know it is pictured in the ERR database. ↩︎
  8. Ariane Thomas, “La Diyala au Louvre ou le reflet d’une certaine historiographie,” in Interdisciplinary Research on the Bronze Age Diyala: Proceedings of the Conference Held at the Paris Institute for Advanced Study, 25 and 26 June, 2018, Subartu XLVII, ed. C. Gonçalves and C. Michel (Turnhout: Brepols, 2021). ↩︎
  9. André Parrot, “Acquisitions et inédits du Musée du Louvre: 6. Sculpture mésopotamienne,” Syria 34, nos. 3–4 (1957). 223–31, here 226. ↩︎
  10. Henri Frankfort, Sculpture of the Third Millennium B.C. from Tell Asmar and Khafājah, OIP 44 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1939), 2. ↩︎
  11. MA-ASI 2-3, 5, 7, 10-11, 14, 17-18, 20-2, M-Aktion Asiatisches, ERR Inventar-Listen, 1-2, Bundesarchiv B323/298A. Both Dr. Borchers and Dr. Eggemann, in charge of the inventory MA-ASI list on March 3, 1943, signed the second page, where the term ”Babylonisch” had been crossed out and annotated. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Anne Dunn-Vaturi, “Provenance Research and Attribution Knowledge of Ancient Middle Eastern Art,” History of Knowledge, December 8, 2021,