Many American museums are now making concentrated efforts to clarify gaps in the provenance (history of ownership) of works in their permanent collections. SAM has works with such gaps in various collecting areas, and research into the histories of these works is an ongoing process.
The list of works with unclear provenance is a work in progress. As provenance research is an integral part of the museum’s work, we continue investigating the histories of these objects, and we post new information as it comes to light. Art Loss Register searches have been completed for all recent acquisitions.
If you have any questions or information about the works of art in SAM’s collection, please feel free to
As a member museum of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), SAM adheres to the 2004 (updated 2008 and 2013) guidelines on the acquisition of archaeological materials and ancient art. These guidelines use 1970 (the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) as the “threshold for a more rigorous analysis of provenance information” for acquisitions of ancient art and archaeological material. As part of these guidelines, SAM posts information about recent ancient or archaeological acquisitions without documented pre-1970 provenance on the AAMD Object Registry.
The list below includes works of art that were acquired by SAM since 2008, and have undocumented provenance prior to 1970.
View Ancient Provenance »
Adolf Hitler’s ruthless ambition for German political control of Europe was matched by his calculated campaign to control its cultural assets, including works of art. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis confiscated the holdings of many governments and individuals that they had subjugated. Hitler and his top advisors admired traditional European art and planned a new museum in Linz, Austria, that would display the finest examples from confiscated collections. Hitler’s Reich Marshall Hermann Goering was also building a lavish private collection.
Because they considered it damaging to German ideals, the Nazis despised modern art. They labeled Impressionist and Expressionist works “degenerate” and confiscated them from national museums, publicly burning some of these works but exchanging most of them with dealer-collaborators for desirable examples of Old Master painting.
In the decades following World War II, many American museums unknowingly received confiscated works of art. In 1997 the Seattle Art Museum discovered that one of its works had such a history, which was confirmed by research in the United States and France. In 1999 SAM returned the painting,
Odalisque by Henri Matisse, to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, a French art dealer whose collection was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941.
Many American museums are now making concentrated efforts to clarify gaps in their provenance (history of ownership) records from the World War II era to enable the rightful owners or their descendants to identify lost works from their collections. Declassification of documents has aided new research and brought much new evidence and information to light. Still, because many records were lost or destroyed, gaps in provenance information are not unusual.
The Seattle Art Museum has a relatively small collection of European art, and research into the histories of these works is an ongoing process. The list below includes works of art that have gaps in their provenance, have unclear dates of transfer between owners, or may have been in Europe during the Nazi era (1933–1945).
Their presence on this list does not mean that we suspect that the Nazis were involved in their history. These are areas where we are conducting further research to clarify the history of ownership.
This list is a work in progress. As provenance research is an integral part of the museum’s work, our researchers will continue investigating the histories of these objects, and we will be posting new information as it comes to light. Art Loss Register searches have been completed for all recent acquisitions. If you have any questions or information about the works of art in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection, please feel free to
email us. We hope that by publicly posting the history of these works of art we may assist the efforts worldwide to identify works looted during World War II and return them to the families of their rightful owners.
Holocaust Provenance »
For more information on provenance standards and research in museums, please see:
AAM's Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era »
Report of the Association of Art Museum Directors Task Force on the Looting of Art During the Nazi/World War II Era
International Research Portal for Records Related to Nazi-Era Cultural Property »
The Seattle Art Museum has taken a leadership role in the return of art sacred to Australian Aboriginal communities. A sacred stone (tjuringa) that was purchased by museum founder Dr. Richard E. Fuller in 1971 (using donated funds) remained in museum storage for decades before being returned to Australia in 2009.
Tjuringas are probably the most famous of Australian sacred material, each one being a deed to land and the representation of an individual's personal and family-group relationship with the Dreaming, the creative force of Australian Aboriginal religion and life.
Today, this type of stone is increasingly recognized as a secret sacred object, removed from Australian Aboriginal territories without the consent of the owners. By 1970, museums in Australia began taking
tjuringas off public display and setting up restricted collections. Following a request for repatriation, the recommendation that the SAM
tjuringa be sent to the National Museum of Australia was approved by the SAM Board of Trustees–Committee on Collections in consultation with Australian museum officials. Repatriation proceedings to a specific community are conducted by the National Museum of Australia.
UNESCO Database of National Cultural Heritage Laws
This database provides access to the national legislation of each state relating to the cultural heritage in general, contact details for the national authorities responsible for the protection of the cultural heritage, and links to official cultural heritage websites.
Provenance Research at the Getty
The Getty website provides access to the Getty Provenance Index Databases, part of the Project for the Study of Collecting and Provenance. The databases contain almost 1,000,000 records that cover the late 16th to early 20th centuries. Also available are a collection of provenance research resources, with a special focus on Holocaust-era research.
International Foundation for Art Research Provenance Guide
The IFAR provides educational resources and links for conducting provenance research. Also included on the IFAR website are a history of provenance research and its effect on World War II Holocaust-era looted art.
Interpol’s web page on stolen works of art provides information on artwork that has been reported stolen or looted. To further the circulation of information, Interpol also provides details on the most recent stolen works reported and works of art that have been recovered.
Art Loss Register
Lost or stolen art can be reported to the Art Loss Register. Visitors who create an account have the opportunity to register their artworks in a pre-loss database. In case of a later loss or theft, they can request a search to see if their item has been recovered.
Cultural Property Advice
Reports on provenance research for the period 1933–1945 by United Kingdom museums on the spoliation of works of art during World War II and the Holocaust. The artwork records are accessible through a searchable database.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a federal law passed in 1990 that provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. This site provides access to legal information, FAQs, and databases which provide information on a variety of NAGPRA-related topics.
The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) Project database provides access to the remaining registration cards and photographs produced by the ERR, covering more than 20,000 art objects taken from Jews in German-occupied France and, to a lesser extent, in Belgium. Under Adolf Hitler, plunder of art from French Jewish and a number of Belgian Jewish collections occurred between 1940 and 1944. Take a tour of this resource.
International Research Portal for Records Related to Nazi-Era Cultural Property
The International Research Portal is a collaboration of national and other archival institutions with records that pertain to Nazi-era cultural property. The portal links researchers to archival materials consisting of descriptions of records and, in many cases, digital images of the records that relate to cultural property that was stolen, looted, seized, forcibly sold, or otherwise lost during the Nazi era.
Lost Art Database
The Lost Art Database is run by the Koordinierungsstelle Magdeburg, Germany’s central office for the documentation of lost cultural property. It registers cultural objects which, as a result of persecution under the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War, were relocated, moved or seized, especially from Jewish owners. The site provides access to German art dealer Adolf Weinmüller’s annotated books--including the names of consigners and buyers-- which were recently made available to provenance researchers.