The Freer and Sackler’s Provenance Project expands on the Smithsonian’s centralized efforts, beginning in the late 1990s, to explore the provenance histories of objects in its collections. The project also deepens the Freer and Sackler’s commitment to scholarship and transparency of collection information. We hope it serves as a model in promoting international awareness, standardized research methodologies, and information exchange between museums and the international public concerning Asian art provenance.
Provenance and World War II Era
During the tumultuous years before and during World War II, the Nazi regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural objects in Europe on an unprecedented scale. Millions of art objects and other cultural items were unlawfully and often forcibly removed from their rightful owners. While many of these confiscated items were returned to their owners through extensive postwar restitutions, some continue to appear on the legitimate art market and make their way into private and public collections.
In the late 1990s, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued guidelines for museums concerning objects that may have been illegally confiscated during the World War II era. After the Washington Conference on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets was held in 1998, AAM and AAMD further recommended that museums make all currently available information accessible to online researchers to aid the discovery and identification of objects that were unlawfully appropriated during the Holocaust era. Under these recommendations, museums should identify works in their collections that were created before 1946 and were acquired after 1932; underwent change of ownership between 1933 and 1945; and were, or might reasonably be thought to have been, in continental Europe in the years before and during World War II. Smithsonian representatives were active in drafting and implementing the recommendations around 2000, and provenance research was undertaken in the paintings, sculpture, and Judaica collections of the Smithsonian Institution around that time.
Freer and Sackler’s World War II Era Provenance Project
The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery initiated a comprehensive provenance research project for their Asian art collections in 2008. The project represents a long-term commitment to research as fully as possible the provenance of all objects in any media within the Freer and Sackler collections 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.
The Asian Art Provenance Connections Project
As part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to undertake World War II era provenance research across its collections, the Freer and Sackler is engaged in a comprehensive provenance research project focused on its Asian works of art, beginning with its Chinese collections. Biographies of selected collectors and dealers related to these Chinese works of art are available as PDFs, with links to their related objects on the Freer and Sackler website and through the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.
The Asian Art Provenance Connections Project makes provenance information both searchable and linked to supporting resources. This project not only takes a broad approach to considering the ownership of a work of art, but it also connects the people who collected the object, its related historical and cultural events, and the archival documents associated with its history of ownership. By expressing provenance information as linked open data and by creating a search interface that exposes relationships articulated through the data, the project promotes international awareness, supports effective research methodologies, and facilitates international collaboration and information exchange between museums and the public concerning Asian art provenance.
The Connections project and the selected biographies have been made possible by the generous support of the David Berg Foundation, which has supported the development of this project, its concept, and its implementation. The Smithsonian Provenance Research Initiative (SPRI) and the University of Glasgow have also provided valuable assistance, leadership, and scholarship.
How to Read Provenance Entries
Provenance for artworks in the Freer and Sackler collections is listed in chronological order, beginning with the earliest known owner. Relationships between owners and methods of transactions are indicated when known.
Footnotes are used to document or clarify information.
Dates reflect the beginning and ending dates of ownership and are modified by prepositions when necessary, following the examples below:
From 1945 to 1970
The work was in this collection from 1945 to 1970.
The work entered this collection in 1945, but we do not know when it left.
From at least 1945
We know the work was in this collection from 1945, but it may have entered earlier.
We do not know when the work entered this collection, but it left in 1945.
To at least 1945 (can be combined with a beginning date)
We know the work was still in this collection in 1945, but it may have left at a later date.
The work was only in the collection for one year.
The work was in the collection around this time, and no more specific information is known.
1940s / early 1940s / mid-1940s / late 1940s
The work is known to have been in the collection, but only a decade or part of a decade is
18th century / early 18th century / mid-18th century / late 18th century
The work is known to have been in a collection, but only a century or part of a century is
A collection name with no date given indicates that we do not know precisely when the
work was in this collection. We know the work was in this collection between the owners
listed above and below it, but other unknown owners may have been in the chain of
The Asian Art Provenance Connections Project Team
- Danielle Bennett, Head of Collections Management, Freer and Sackler
- Jeffrey Smith, Assistant Registrar for Collections Information, Freer and Sackler
- Najiba Choudhury, Collections Information Assistant & Provenance Researcher, Freer and Sackler
Provenance in the World War II Era, 1933-1945, Smithsonian Institution
AAM’s Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP)
Guidelines and Procedures for World War II Provenance Issues (PDF)
Hidden Networks: The Trade of Asian Art