As part of the ongoing conversation related to cultural property and museum collections here and elsewhere, I wanted to share some insights about how we go about this complex work at the Denver Art Museum.
Provenance research has been a part of our work at the museum for many decades and will be for many more. It is critical to our consideration for acquiring a new artwork for the collection, putting a loaned work on display, or confirming and expanding facts we have about works currently in the museum’s collection. "Provenance" is an artwork’s history of ownership and provenance research involves investigating the complete chain of ownership of a work to confirm when an artwork was acquired, sold or changed hands prior to entering the DAM’s collection.
The DAM’s provenance research has focused most recently on objects connected with dealers, donors and other sources who later were found to be involved in the illicit trade of cultural property, such as the dealers Douglas Latchford, Subhash Kapoor and longtime donor, Emma Bunker. As a result of research and new information, many works connected to those individuals have been removed from the museum’s collections and repatriated to their countries of origin, with others awaiting next steps for return. You can find the most recent repatriation announcements on our Provenance Research page.
Some of the steps we take to learn about artwork provenance include:
- Contacting scholars closely connected with cultures and art related to a country of origin to better understand the geography and time period of works in the collection.
- Reaching out to government officials in countries of origin to request additional information. This is the process we undertook when we reached out to Cambodia in 2019 and Thailand in 2021.
- Working with the US government officials, who are often in touch with other countries and can provide guidance and information related to individuals or objects connected to the museum. We are currently working with US officials related to antiquities in Southeast Asia.
- Posting all known facts about an object in our collection to our website with the goal of enabling anyone with information to get in touch with us. More artworks are added to the site every week, and the Provenance Research Department has prioritized posting pieces connected with key areas of focus including ancient art and art from archeological contexts, art associated with colonialism or conflict, art acquired during the Nazi era and art related to the US Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Those policies can be found online and are in alignment with accrediting organizations including the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).
As an example of how this process works, facts shared in an inquiry from Vietnam provided more details about a previously deaccessioned bronze dagger associated with Emma Bunker, and that piece now awaits next steps in the process for its return. Three additional items listed in the query—a 19th century stone tomb sculpture, an 18th/19th century wooden Guanyin statue and a carved crystal seal—are not part of the DAM’s collection, nor do they appear to have ever been at the museum. By sharing that information with Vietnamese officials, the country will be able to continue its inquiry in a new direction.
The DAM has invested significant resources into researching its collections and will continue to do so well into the future. DAM is home to more than 70,000 works of art from prehistoric times to contemporary works. The older an artwork is, the more challenging it can be to find surviving or available source materials to fill gaps in its story. Researchers seek out documentation such as bills of sale, receipts, and export paperwork, and any exhibition or scholarly publications, photographic archives, newspaper articles, ancestry websites, and archives for dealers, auction houses or collectors. Collaboration with scholars, and contacting nations of origin, are also critical steps for possible information.
Investigating an artwork’s history is nuanced and can take months or even years to confirm facts. If you’d like to learn more about this process, please stay tuned for a fall member lecture featuring a recent case study that sheds light onto a different area of research that we have been undertaking for more than a decade, the history of ownership during Germany’s Nazi regime. The provenance of our Amedeo Modigliani Portrait de Femme (1918) was researched in connection with the museum’s Nazi era policy.
As we have learned more about provenance and historical collecting practices, the DAM has continued to update and evolve its own policies and approach to collecting, in line with changes in the museum field. These policies help the museum continue to build its collections ethically and responsibly, with more stringent review of an artwork’s provenance in place for new acquisitions. My team and I recognize that with a collection as vast as the DAM’s, there will continue to be existing works in the collection that require further provenance research and may need to be returned to their nations of origin in the future. With this in mind, we created a new Department of Provenance Research last year and added staff to that team earlier this year to expand our capacity for this work.
The museum will continue to regularly update the community on the progress of our work on the DAM’s Provenance Research page. Thank you, and please email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or suggestions related to these ongoing efforts at the DAM.