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.
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.
In 1908, The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased from the French art dealer Kleinberger Galleries a sixteenth-century portrait believed to be that of Johann, Duke of Saxony, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Museum’s paintings curator, Roger Fry, had learned of the availability of this little-known work by the German Renaissance master late in 1907, and through correspondence with Kleinberger confirmed its provenance and attribution, which were attested by the eminent art historians Max Friedländer and Wilhelm von Bode. The picture crossed the Atlantic on the Courraine, arrived at the Met on February 3, and was installed in its galleries soon after. It was the first work by Cranach the Elder in the Metropolitan’s collection.
Where is the object from? Who did it belong to? How did it enter the collection? Nowadays, hardly any curator can avoid dealing with these questions before exhibiting or acquiring works of art or other cultural objects. Provenance has become an essential factor for public acceptance of the legitimacy of holdings in national museum collections worldwide as a consequence of two broad trends. On the one hand, a broad consensus on Nazi-confiscated art was reached in 1998 and expressed in the Washington Principles. On the other hand, there have been numerous heated public debates in recent years about the unlawful or unfair appropriation of cultural assets and the possible restitution of such items.1 Concern about the origins of objects is growing for libraries and archives too. Thus, provenance research has become a globally sought-after discipline.