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 preserving knowledge for the future.The unlawful removal of significant objects from their place of origin has increased dramatically in recent years. In some areas of the world it rivals drug trafficking as an illegal economic force. 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 its own set of strict rules and regulations to guard against the acquisition or exhibition of any object that was not ethically acquired, scientifically excavated, or legally removed from its country of origin. The Smithsonian Institution Policy on Museum Acquisitions 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.

Cultural Property Provenance Policy

Collecting is fundamental to the vitality of the Freer|Sackler, and close regulation of the acquisition process is critical to preserving cultural property.

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 local, national, and international laws, treaties, and conventions applicable to art and archaeological objects and sites are observed and compliance to the laws documented. We then weigh the resulting information in light of the Smithsonian Institution Policy on Museum Acquisitions (updated and adopted by the Board of Regents on April 13, 2015). In addition, we also adhere to guidelines issued by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).

How to contact us

Provenance research is a continuous and ongoing process, and object information is updated on a regular basis to reflect our research. This website ultimately will include all Freer and Sackler objects, not just those with gaps in ownership. We welcome queries on the provenance of works in our collections. If you have any information or questions, please email or write to:

Jeffrey Smith
Assistant Registrar for Collections Information
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Attn: World War II Era Provenance Project
1050 Independence Ave., SW
MRC 707, PO Box 37012
Washington, DC 20013-7012


Advisory Council on Historic Conversation: The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended in 2006

American Alliance of Museums:
Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi Era
Standards Regarding Archaeological Material and Ancient Art

Association of Art Museum Directors:
Report on Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art
Task Force Report on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era

International Council of Museums: Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk
National Park Service: American Antiquities Act, 1906 (16 USC 431-433)
UNESCO Convention of 1970
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Fact Sheet: Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations


Advisory Council on Historic Conservation
American Alliance of Museums
Association of Art Museum Directors
International Council of Museums
UNESCO World Heritage Portal
U.S. Department of State, Cultural Heritage Center

More information

Provenance Research


Biographies of selected collectors and dealers with links to object research


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)