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'Looted Art? Provenance research on the collections of the MKG' opens in Hamburg
Installation view.

HAMBURG.- Systematic research to establish the origins and whereabouts of objects has been a focus of the scientific work at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg for many years.

Now, the MKG is giving a glimpse into its activities in the area of provenance research. The exhibition is conceived as a momentary snapshot in a continuous work in progress and traces the very diverse biographies of some 100 exhibits which have been the subject of investigation. These include art objects with authenticated proof of their provenance, but also others whose origins lie in the dark or which still need further research. The exhibits are not arranged chronologically or thematically, but according to their origin. In this way, networks and relationships between objects, the conditions under which art dealers operate and the predilections of individual private collectors are revealed. Research documentation such as auction catalogues, inventory books or art magazines make the paths traced by the researchers understandable for the observer. A special tour leads from the exhibition to additional objects in the permanent collections of the MKG. The current scientific approach allows a pro- active and systematic research process, and focuses on works of art acquired during and after the Nazi period. The exhibition, together with its accompanying catalogue, is intended to create transparency concerning the present state of the investigations, but also to make people more aware of their own history and the circumstances under which acquisitions were made in the past. This spotlights the way non-European or ancient cultural artifacts were seen and treated, the criteria which regulate the acquisition of exhibits by museums today and the need for further research and action. The MKG would like to present this important scientific discipline without focusing unduly on its results and to demonstrate its potential as well as its limits. Approaching one’s own history with an open mind plays as important a role in the exhibition as the question of the historical responsibility of a museum.

Clarifying the provenance of an art object involves a painstaking search for clues through the media of a bygone age which is all too often akin to the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack. Auction catalogues need to be evaluated, the professional journals of the art dealing world must be leafed through on the lookout for advertisements and collectors’ stories. Historical museum archives, public records on the art trade stored in the records of regional and federal governments and the personal correspondence between the museums, collectors and art dealers must be read through and evaluated. Researchers look for names and historical contexts, family histories and the fates of individuals, many of which only remain in “snippets” that a biography has left more or less by chance. In the MKG, these also include personal notes jotted down in auction catalogues from the private library of Martin Feddersen. The former curator of the Department of East Asian Art was one of those who fell foul of the Nazi regime. He was suspended from his position at the museum and only rehabilitated in 1945. His library was his constant companion throughout his professional life until it found a permanent home in the museum library. A selection of these research materials, often highly personal, has been allocated to particular case studies in the exhibition. The search for facts and contexts is often like putting together a puzzle – but one in which important pieces are missing. If the results of the research do seem to fit together it can often be misleading, for instance a person of the same name who is not identical with the former owner of the object. And then the whole search starts all over again.

The exhibition shows many objects which came into the MKG during the core Nazi period from 1933 to 1945. This was the case for some 600 works of art acquired during these years by the MKG or donated to the museum. Later purchases must also be investigated, since a documentation certifying the whereabouts and movements of objects during the Nazi period is a requirement. Particular attention is paid to silverware formerly owned by Jewish families. After many objects had been returned to their former Jewish owners and a compensation payment had been made to the Jewish Trust Corporation, the remaining objects were distributed among the Hamburg museums in 1960. But in many cases it still needs to be clarified how to deal with this silverware. The search for the right way to address this problem is a challenge which the MKG is ready and willing to take up in the context of this exhibition and also in close cooperation with other museums.

Provenance research became obligatory for German museums with the Washington Agreement on restitution and compensation for the victims of National Socialism in 1998. The purpose of this remit is to identify those objects of art which are burdened by a possible history of persecution by the Nazis, to trace their locations and movements during this period and to provide compensation where necessary. The MKG wishes to face up to its historical responsibility and, after a period of intensive research, would like to present its initial findings and conclusions in this exhibition. The focus lies on the “biographies” of the individual art objects. Every one of them has its own story to tell, linked to its creation, its function and the paths through which it found its way into the museum’s collections.

With this presentation, the MKG would like to make a contribution to breaking down the reserve which exists against this discipline in art history. Museums are often faced with criticism because they only react when they are confronted with demands for restitution. The necessary and time-consuming research can hardly be done under pressure, and thus runs the risk of producing controversial decisions. This investigative work, which in the mind of the public is often associated with the stigma of loss, is intended to be shown in a fresh light, incorporating the experiences of the museum has made in this academic field.

Provenance research combines current studies with a museum discipline and looks back on the continuous process of investigating a museum’s collection and its own history. In this endeavour, the institutions are supported by politics and receive funding from the Federal Government via the Bureau for Provenance Research (Arbeitsstelle für Provenienzforschung) at the Institute for Museum Research at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

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