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Information System for Auction Consignments

One of the greatest challenges for provenance research is to identify the previous owners of objects and works of art acquired at auction. The auction catalogue is often the only point of reference for this kind of research, which inevitably leads the researcher to the consignment logs in the front matter. In these logs, however, the consignor is coded.

This coding procedure was made mandatory in Germany in October 1934 (although some auction houses introduced this procedure before 1933) with the enactment of the “Law on the Auction Trade” and its almost 300-page by-law. This law allowed the Reichskammer der Bildenden Künste to control and regulate the art trade. The consignment logs show initials with or without place names, Roman numerals, aliases, or completely abstract codes. Deciphering a code like this can mean months of work. The outcomes of this work are of great interest not only to the museum in question, but also to provenance researchers internationally, since an auctioned lot of artworks was typically purchased by a number of different buyers and then scattered around the world. This means that identical research is needed in various places today, making dialogue in the research process and the open sharing of research outcomes vitally important.

To facilitate such a dialogue, the “Information System for Auction Consignments” enables provenance researchers to digitally annotate the consignment codes – essentially continuing the tradition of historical annotations, which have long been a key source for provenance research. With this system, researchers can now store background information on the consignors directly in the auction catalogue, publish their research outcomes in a citable form linked to their name, as well as follow the decoding work of other researchers online.

The “Information System for Auction Consignments” expands upon the functionality of the digitised data housed by the German Sales project. First launched in 2010, German Sales provides the research community with an evolving portal of digitised auction catalogues from the German-speaking world before 1945. The catalogue portal was the outcome of a joint project between the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Kunstbibliothek and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, which was funded in part by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Institutions: Zentralarchiv, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg
Project coordination and research: Dr Hanna Strzoda (Zentralarchiv, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), Dr Maria Effinger (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg)
Duration: since 2019