What is Provenance?
"Provenance" is information about an artwork’s history of ownership. We can learn a lot about an artwork and the context in which it was created, as well as changing tastes in collecting, by researching and studying its provenance. Researching the ownership of an artwork, and how and where it changed hands can help museums illuminate objects, artists, and cultures, and enable a museum to tell stories about the world to its visitors
Provenance research is always ongoing and is an important aspect of curatorial practice, and part of a collecting institution’s due diligence and best practices. A gap in a work's ownership history is common, especially for works that date back centuries. Gaps in provenance can be attributed to information lost to time, lack of record keeping, natural disasters or war, or even suggest troubling or illegal aspects of an object's journey and may be a cause for further research. A growing availability of information from digitized records, online databases, and other resources are providing new avenues to information that sheds light on an artwork’s ownership history.
Provenance at the Denver Art Museum
The Denver Art Museum requires provenance research on proposed acquisitions, and curatorial staff also research artworks currently in the collection to ensure legal ownership. U.S. law, conventions regarding cultural property, and professional guidelines by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) all help guide the museum’s legal and ethical collecting policies and practices. The museum additionally collaborates with colleagues and officials in the U.S. and around the world to review legal and ethical questions related to the history of art works.
DAM curatorial staff conduct provenance research on an ongoing basis, and this process is methodical and fact based. Sources for research include not just the object and museum documentation, but review of an artist’s list of known artworks, as well as scholarship, exhibition and publication history. Dealer, collector, auction, and photo archives can contain helpful ownership information, as can newspaper articles, obituaries, ancestry websites and red-flag lists and lost art databases. While provenance research takes place for all new acquisitions and across collections, additional attention is placed on objects where certain legal and ethical considerations apply:
Ancient Art or Art from Archaeological Contexts
The Museum deplores the illicit excavation of objects from archaeological sites, the destruction and defacing of ancient monuments, and the theft of works from individuals, museums and other repositories. DAM follows U.S. law and professional guidelines in recognizing the importance of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Gaps in provenance history are common for antiquities and in researching existing collections or incoming acquisitions, the Museum applies a high level of due diligence and research that includes a legal and ethical analysis, consultations with scholars or individuals from countries of origin, and U.S. and foreign government officials, as appropriate, surrounding facts of the artwork’s history.
Art Associated with a Legacy of Colonialism or Conflict
DAM recognizes that artwork coming from locations that may have experienced colonial rule and armed conflict may have been acquired under conditions that were forced and considered unethical today. DAM is committed to researching these works and consulting appropriate communities to determine facts about an object’s history, purpose, and method of initial transfer from the local context. The museum adheres to guidance from the Association of Art Museum Directors on colonized areas.
Art Acquired during the Nazi era
Artworks that may have been in continental Europe between 1933 and 1945 are carefully researched to ensure legal ownership. During this period, thousands of artworks owned by private and mostly Jewish collectors were seized or sold through forced sales. DAM’s Nazi Era Policy supports research efforts to identify and return any works to confirmed owners or heirs as well as publicly post artworks that were in Europe and have gaps in the ownership history that span this era. AAM policy on Nazi Era can be found on their website.
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)
U.S. Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990, and the federal law requires museums to actively consult with Indigenous communities and repatriate ancestral remains and funerary objects, and certain works of sacred or ceremonial importance and objects of cultural patrimony central to the identify of a community. DAM’s NAGPRA Policy recognizes that an important legacy of this law has been the value of consultation and collaboration with indigenous communities that continues today.
Explore Provenance in the DAM's Online Collection
The DAM’s global art collection is home to more than 70,000 objects from around the world. As the online collection database is expanded, collection works and information about them are added daily. Object materials, size, artist, and more are included in the listings. Most object listings include a section called Known Provenance.
How to Read Provenance Information:
- DAM uses a variety of formats for listing a provenance history that follow a variation of the format suggested by the AAM Guide to Provenance Research (Washington D.C., 2001):
- All provenance is listed in chronological order, beginning with the earliest owner.
- Methods of transfer, such as gift, sale or by inheritance, and date of transfer, if known, are noted.
- Galleries, dealers, and collector names involved in the sale of artworks are put in (parenthesis).
- Unknown or anonymous collectors or owners are sometimes referred to as a “private” dealer or collector.
- Life dates for owners or individuals are put in [brackets].
- Finally, periods (.) between ownership reflect a gap or unknown period of time from one owner to the next. A semicolon (;) indicates that a direct transfer occurred between owners.
Review the following example to see how to read a provenance label:
To contribute to the knowledge around the history of ownership of an artwork/s in the museum’s collection, or to submit a query, the museum invites community members, colleagues or members of the public to send an email to email@example.com.
Art Repatriations and Restitutions
The Denver Art Museum has a track record of working proactively and collaboratively to definitively confirm and return artworks proven to belong to another nation or individual. The Denver Art Museum would restitute (return of an artwork to an individual or family) or repatriate (return of cultural property to its nation or community of origin) for claims made through laws including NAGPRA, adherence to guidelines for Nazi-era works; or research that may have uncovered illegality or unethical circumstances surrounding a work in the collection.
DAM Repatriation Selected Press Releases:
- 1979: Repatriation of Zuni War God
- 1995: Repatriation of Objects to Blackfeet Tribe Under NAGPRA
- 1998: Repatriation of El Zotz Lintel to Guatemala
- 2000: Restitution of 17th Century Dutch Painting, The Letter
- 2016: Repatriation of Torso of Rama to Cambodia
- 2021: Repatriation of Sculpture to Nepal
- 2021: Repatriation of Four Artworks to the People of Cambodia
- 2022: Repatriations to India
Look here for information about provenance efforts at DAM, including statements, blog posts, and other stories.