Researching the origins of artefacts in our collections is one of the key responsibilities of all curatorial and research staff at the museums. However, the stipulations that require museums to systematically investigate their holdings for cultural assets acquired through Nazi persecution, in particular Jewish property, have become more complex and extensive since the Washington Principles were agreed in 1998 as well as the resolution passed by the board of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz in 1999.
To meet these demands, a full-time position for provenance research at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin was established in 2008. The primary goal was to bring together, in one location, the various strands of often highly specialised and exacting historical research undertaken by the museums in response to ongoing restitution claims for works from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s collections. In this way, the necessary and thorough investigation of all museum objects acquired since 1933 can be better coordinated and advanced. The office is situated at the Zentralarchiv, where all existing records on the history of the museums are preserved for posterity. This location was an obvious choice as the archive’s comprehensive and manifold historical resources form the starting point for all research into the provenance of objects from the collections.
At the heart of provenance research at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin is the question of ownership which, considering the breadth and diversity of the Berlin collections and their more than 180-year history, not only covers the period of National Socialism but also the changes in ownership that occurred in the 1920s, e.g., the expropriation of royal assets in 1926, and during the periods of the Soviet occupation in the eastern zone of Berlin and the wider GDR. Further responsibilities of provenance research are to identify objects that belong to third parties and to reconstruct how these objects came to the museums, as well as to establish proof of the origins of works that were assumed to have been lost during the war but have since reappeared on the art market. The provenance research office can also provide invaluable assistance when acquisitions are planned by any of the collections at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and when details of objects that were given or accepted on permanent loan in the past need to be clarified.
The systematic research of the collections with regard to cultural assets that were looted or acquired through Nazi persecution, in particular Jewish property, was first carried out for acquisitions made by the museums between 1933 and 1945. This research resulted in numerous objects, primarily from the Nationalgalerie, the Kupferstichkabinett, the Kunstgewerbemuseum and the Gemäldegalerie, being returned to their rightful owners. Parallel to this endeavour, work began on the investigation of acquisitions from the post-war period, with emphasis on modernist works from the Nationalgalerie and the Kupferstichkabinett. Several research projects undertaken by the individual collections support these investigations.
In addition, the custodians of the collections continually undertake provenance research as part of their day-to-day work, the results of which can be seen in catalogues of the collections and exhibitions, and are also documented in databases and online catalogues.