Provenance and Cultural Property

A vast array of cultural heritage items is considered cultural property, ranging from architecture and monuments to individual artifacts that are significant to understanding past generations and to preserving knowledge for the future. The unlawful removal of significant objects from their places of origin has increased dramatically in recent years. This illicit international market has contributed to the destruction of museums and monuments and has caused the irreparable loss of archaeological remains. Efforts to stop the loss of cultural treasures are building throughout the world. Nations are increasingly adopting regulations, laws, and professional codes of ethics to reinforce the fact that cultural property should not be removed, sold, or traded without permission from official representatives of the country of origin.

The Smithsonian has adopted a comprehensive policy, The Smithsonian Institution Policy on Acquisition of Art, Antiquities, Archaeological and Ethnographic Material and Historic Objects (revised April 13, 2015), to guard against the acquisition or exhibition of any object that was unethically acquired, unscientifically gathered or excavated, or removed from its country of origin in a manner inconsistent with the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The Smithsonian supports local, state, national, and international laws to protect art, antiquities, national treasures, ethnographic material, and all cultural property from illicit trafficking or destructive exploitation. In developing such rules, museums take an active part in strengthening the laws that protect cultural property worldwide.

The Smithsonian developed the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI), a program that brings together Smithsonian experts ranging from archeologists to collection managers to protect cultural heritage that has been threatened or damaged by disasters. Partnering with a network of federal agencies, foreign governments, and domestic and international organizations already working in this field, SCRI helps all types of cultural heritage institutions to prepare for and respond to disasters that threaten cultural heritage. SCRI creates and shares new research dedicated to uncovering the root causes of damage to cultural heritage in disasters. It provides a place of learning where heritage stewards can develop techniques for stabilizing heritage in peril. SCRI’s outreach events and materials also keep the importance of heritage protection in the forefront of public discussion.


The National Museum of Asian Art & Cultural Property

Collecting is fundamental to the vitality of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, and the museum follows a rigorous process in reviewing objects for acquisition.

The ownership history—commonly referred to as provenance—for all objects considered for acquisition is thoroughly researched and documented. All objects must have been collected legally and ethically by the source or donor. All applicable local, national, and international laws, treaties, and conventions are observed, and compliance to the laws is documented. We ensure that the object can be acquired consistent with the standards set forth in The Smithsonian Institution Policy on Acquisition of Art, Antiquities, Archaeological and Ethnographic Material and Historic Objects (revised April 13, 2015). In addition, we adhere to guidelines issued by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).


Important Documents Relating to Cultural Property:


Organizations Advocating for the Preservation of Cultural Property:


Provenance Research at the National Museum of Asian Art

Contact Us:

We welcome queries on the provenance of works in our collections. If you have any information or questions, please email gohmannj@si.edu.

Joanna M. Gohmann, PhD
Provenance Researcher & Object Historian
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art


The information presented on this website may be revised and updated at any time as ongoing research progresses or as otherwise warranted. Pending any such revisions and updates, information on this site may be incomplete or inaccurate or may contain typographical errors. Neither the Smithsonian nor its officers, employees, or agents make any representations about the accuracy, reliability, completeness, or timeliness of this site or information on this site. The use of this site and the information provided on it are subject to your own judgment. The Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery welcome information that would augment or clarify the ownership histories of objects in their collections.