The Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
have launched a Web site that allows public access to research being conducted as part of the galleries' World War II Era Provenance Research Project
. The site is part of a long-term provenance effort at the Freer and Sackler galleries, which together hold one of the nation's largest and most important collections of Asian art. The goal of the project is to identify and clarify the ownership history for works of art in the collections that might have been unlawfully taken by the Nazis during the World War II era and to make this information available to the public.
The Freer and Sackler galleries' project is a part of the Smithsonian's commitment to World War II era provenance research. In 2002, Congress mandated that American museums investigate and disclose information about objects that might have been misappropriated during the 1930s and 1940s. Guidelines defined in directives issued by the American Association of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, call for museums to identify all questionable objects or "covered objects" in their collections.
"Covered objects" are defined as those created before 1946; that were acquired after 1932; that underwent a change of ownership between 1933 and 1945; and that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between those dates.
World War II provenance research is often a lengthy and difficult process that does not always result in a clear and unambiguous history of ownership. However, in 2002, the Freer and Sackler galleries successfully resolved a significant case of misappropriation involving an object in the Freer collection.
The case involved a Chinese bronze ritual vessel, widely considered one of the finest bronzes to come from the Early Western Zhou dynasty (11th century B.C.), which was acquired by the Freer Gallery of Art in 1938 (accession number F1938.20). In July 2000, the galleries received a claim asserting that the heirs of Rosa and Jakob Oppenheimer were the rightful owners of the vessel. With the cooperation and assistance of the family, the Smithsonian researched the history of the vessel, and discovered that it had been sold at an auction in Berlin in 1935 that was later determined to be a forced auction resulting from Nazi persecution of the Oppenheimers. C.T. Loo, a dealer with offices in New York and Paris, subsequently acquired the vessel in 1937. The Freer Gallery of Art purchased the vessel in 1938 from Loo, who asserted that it was acquired in China.
The claim was resolved when the Smithsonian and the Oppenheimer heirs amicably agreed on a purchase price for the artwork. The piece has remained in the museum's collection in Washington, D.C.
The history of this object and others in the Freer collection are being made public as part of the museum's provenance research project.
As the project continues to develop, the Freer and Sackler hope to establish new methods and standards of provenance research specifically for Asian objects and to facilitate the ongoing exchange of information among provenance specialists grappling with similar challenges.
"Our hope is that this research will not only clarify the 20th-century history of objects in our collections, but also include as much information as we can find on an object's earlier history," said Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler galleries. "We also intend this research to have broader use in the form of databases of Asian collections, dealers and collectors. We have begun discussions with a number of institutions in Europe about forming a consortium to further such research, as we are convinced this information will have benefit to research institutions worldwide and the public at large."