COLLECTION PRACTICES AND PROVENANCE
SAM recognizes that collecting histories can be inextricable from global histories of imperialism, colonialism, and other inequitable structures. SAM is committed to engaging in legal and ethical collection practices, conducting thorough provenance research in all areas of the collection, and being transparent about the results of this research with the public. SAM’s research into the histories of works in its collection with unclear provenance is an ongoing process, and available provenance information for these artworks can be accessed through the museum’s
Collections page. These records are regularly reviewed and updated as new information becomes available.
SAM has over 25,000 artworks in its permanent collection, acquired since 1933 through donations and purchases. While most works of art in SAM’s collection were not acquired under inequitable conditions, it is our duty to recognize when they were. Many works in SAM’s collection were collected and exported legally, with permission of local governments and cultural authorities. Some were purchased legally, though the conditions of sale can be seen as inequitable today. Others were created as commissioned works in collaboration with SAM. For objects that have been documented as—or if there is persuasive evidence of—having been taken through violent or inequitable means, SAM is in the process of noting this information in the provenance listing, and/or attempting to consult with the appropriate individuals or communities of origin; this is a long-term, ongoing process.
Researching and sharing these complex stories is central to SAM’s mission. Towards the goal of transparent and ethical collecting and display practices, SAM pledges to continue to conduct thorough provenance research and continue to work with communities of origin with regards to the care, presentation, and management of culturally sensitive artworks. We consider shared authority for research, interpretation, and display as a primary objective for our collection held in public trust.
We welcome new information about the history of works in SAM’s collection. If you have any questions or information about a work of art in SAM’s collection, please feel free to
POLICIES AND GUIDELINES
SAM’s Collections Management Policy is guided by all applicable laws, and best practice guidelines issued by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD).
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)
SAM recognizes tribal rights of self-determination in regards to the control of human remains, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. NAGPRA provides a legal mechanism for federally recognized Indian tribes, including Alaska Native villages (as defined in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act), and native Hawaiian organizations to make claims for human remains and certain categories of cultural objects held by museums and other institutions that receive federal funding. SAM pledges to review repatriation claims carefully and thoroughly on a case-by-case basis.
As a member museum of the 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. Before acquiring a work of ancient art or archaeological material, in keeping with AAMD guidelines, the museum conducts research to verify that the work was outside its probable country of modern discovery before 1970, or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970. In keeping with AAMD guidelines and the date they went into effect, the below list includes works of ancient art or archaeological material that have been acquired by SAM since June 2008 and lack complete provenance after November 1970.
View Ancient Provenance Works »
Adolf Hitler’s rise to power from 1933 to the end of World War II corresponded with an unprecedented campaign to seize and control cultural property across Europe, including but not limited to works of art. From the years 1933 to 1945, a vast number of art objects were systematically confiscated or displaced through looting and forced sales. Although many works of art were returned to their original owners following World War II, many American museums unknowingly received confiscated works of art.
As a result, American and European museums make concentrated efforts to clarify gaps in their provenance records to enable the rightful owners or their descendants to identify—and reclaim—lost works from their collections. Declassification of documents and new databases have aided 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 important and ongoing process. The list below includes works of art that have gaps in their provenance and 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, and we will post new information as it comes to light.
View Nazi-era Provenance Works »
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 »
One of the clearest examples of colonial exploitation in African art involves the 1897 British “punitive expedition” that confiscated art owned by the Benin Kingdom, senselessly massacred Benin people, destroyed the royal palace, and resulted in the exile of the Oba (or King). In 2021, SAM joined an international effort to enable the Kingdom to learn where the thousands of artworks taken from the palace are now located, registering four artworks in SAM’s collection with the Digital Benin Project—an archive of Benin holdings.
As with other works with colonial-era histories, SAM aims to research and identify objects in the collection that may have been looted, forcibly sold, or stolen during 19th- and 20th-century periods of colonial occupation or conflict. This is an ongoing effort and new information is welcome. If you know of any documentation about objects in SAM’s collection that would assist in this effort, please
AAMD Object Registry
SAM posts information about certain ancient or archaeological works acquired since June 2008 lacking complete provenance after November 1970 on the AAMD Object Registry’s list of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art. In addition, the AAMD Object Registry list of Claims for Nazi-Era Cultural Assets provides information on the resolution of formal claims made by AAMD member museums regarding works of art believed to have been stolen by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. As an AAMD member museum, SAM posts works in its collection fitting these descriptions to the AAMD Object Registry.
Nazi-Era Provenance Portal
Sponsored by AAM, the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal provides a searchable registry of objects in US museum collections that changed hands in Continental Europe during the Nazi era (1933–1945). SAM is a participating museum.
For more information on repatriation and other provenance resources please see:
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. 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. 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.
National NAGPRA »
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.
ERR Project »
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.
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 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 during World War II.