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Provenance Research

Collecting is fundamental to the vitality of the Freer and Sackler Galleries. At the same time, close regulation of the collecting process is fundamental to the preservation of cultural property. The Freer and Sackler can only make an acquisition if it directly supports the Galleries' mission and collections plan and if it is approved under applicable laws and regulations, professional ethics, and established evaluation criteria. Determining this involves conducting thorough research and documentation of the object's ownership history. Commonly referred to as provenance, ownership history is evaluated according to the Smithsonian's policy on the UNESCO Convention of 1970, which forbids the acquisition or display of works illegally removed from their nation of origin after 1970.

Provenance details can be obtained in several ways. If the object is considered a gift, information may be provided by the former owner. If the object is a potential purchase, information may be obtained by contacting the ambassador of the country of origin in Washington, D.C., the director of the national museum in the country of origin, and/or the American ambassador serving in the country of origin. The resulting information is then weighed in light of the Smithsonian Institution Policy on Museum Acquisitions (May 9, 1973).

The Freer and Sackler also adhere to the Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era, issued by the American Association of Museums (AAM), and the Report of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD)Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era. Both documents indicate that museums should strive to identify all objects in their collections that were created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932, that underwent a change of ownership between 1932 and 1946, and that were likely in continental Europe between those dates; publicly disclose provenance information on those objects; and prioritize continuing this provenance research.

The Freer and Sackler have embarked on a project to identify and clarify questions of ownership history for the Galleries' Asian artworks that fall under the guidelines' specifications. The project represents a long-term commitment by the museums to research the provenance of all objects that have gaps in ownership history or may have been subject to questionable transfer of ownership or unlawful appropriation during the World War II era. Visit our World War II Era Provenance Project webpage for more information.