An interview with the Landesmuseum Mainz
In April 2016, the German Lost Art Foundation began supporting a project at Landesmuseum Mainz (Mainz State Museum) which aimed to clarify the origin and previous ownership status of 61 paintings initially, and subsequently also the provenance of Jewish-owned graphics, furniture and handcrafted objects. The Landesmuseum has already presented its research results a number of times in presentations, including at international conferences. The project findings are regularly discussed in short guided sessions and are also communicated to the wider public in guided tours for International Museum Day and at Mainz Museum Night.
1. Why did you and your institution decide to undertake provenance research?
The Landesmuseum Mainz holds a collection consisting of paintings, graphic art, some pieces of furniture and porcelain items. It has been known for some time that they were acquired for the museum through a tax office transfer and are Jewish property. In order to create transparency, the museum has been registering the object lists with organizations such as the Holocaust Art Restitution Project since the 1990s and has entered details of the objects in the Lost Art Database operated by the German Lost Art Foundation. However, as these measures have not been particularly successful with regard to clarifying the ownership status of the objects, the museum decided to carry out its own systematic research.
2. Which of the objects investigated has a particularly noteworthy history?
A large lot of objects was received by the museum in 1943 via the tax office, most of which came from the apartments of deported Jews. The owners were predominantly local middle class residents and not art collectors in the traditional sense. The items they owned could be described as “living room art”—rather than conventional works that decorated middle class apartments. These objects have a relatively low material value. However, they allow us to obtain insights into the living environments of the assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie in the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, however, their route into the museum clearly attests to how this milieu was systematically eradicated as a result of persecution by the Nazis.
3. Were there any surprises in the course of the project or did anything strike you in particular?
Traditional research tools, such as databases for auction houses, were not much help in our investigation of this collection. So it was more promising to start with the mechanisms of the expropriation, to really understand how the tax office dealt with works of art. At the same time, this approach makes clear how methodically and comprehensively even everyday items like silverware and furnishings were “utilized”—and that, in addition to the works of art, a high number of everyday items also went unreported. It is not possible to reconstruct where these items went because they did not even end up in museums, but were passed on directly to private individuals.
4. What advice or guidance can you give to institutions that have little experience with provenance research to date?
At the beginning, it is advisable to start with the institution’s own documents and search them for suspect cases—are there any notes on particular art dealers or auction houses in the inventories and receipt books? Or, as in the Mainz case, is there any correspondence relating to specific acquisition circumstances which suggests that the items were seized as a result of persecution? It can be an advantage to start with categories of objects that are comparatively simple to research, such as paintings; however, you need to bear in mind that a specific acquisition context may also simultaneously relate to different kinds of objects.
5. What particular challenges have you had to cope with during the project and when undertaking provenance research?
One of the problems of researching works of art that were “utilized” by the tax offices is that the tax office files rarely contain records on movable property like furniture or works of art. For the Mainz tax office, for example, this type of document no longer exists. Therefore the only traces that help us identify the owners are the identification numbers which the tax office used to register the objects when “utilizing” them and which are also recorded on the object lists in the institution’s archive and on the back of some of the paintings. Each number recorded by the tax office stands for a utilization procedure, and therefore also for an owner. However, time-consuming research was needed first to clarify which system was used to allocate the numbers—they come from a card index which the tax authorities used to manage payment transactions with Mainz’s Jews who were subject to tax. Unfortunately this card index is no longer available in its original form. The allocation of numbers and names can therefore only be reconstructed by cross-referencing information from the tax office’s old sales receipts or reparation files. We have been able to identify some owners in this way, but for other numbers identification has not been possible so far.
6. What measures are you taking to make the findings of your research transparent?
Die Frage nach dem Umgang mit Rechercheergebnissen ist wichtig und spannend, da sie nicht nur die interne Dokumentation der Forschungen betrifft, sondern auch deren Vermittlung – wie lassen sich oft komplexe Herkunftsgeschichten am besten im Museum darstellen? Wie geht man dabei mit personenbezogenen Daten um? Wie kann man die methodischen Herausforderungen der Provenienzforschung sichtbar machen? In Mainz wird im Rahmen eines festen Führungsformats – der halbstündigen „Kunst in der Mittagspause“ – regelmäßig ein Einblick in die Provenienzrecherchen gegeben, indem jeweils ein Objekt und seine Herkunftsgeschichte näher vorgestellt werden. Da viele der Stücke, die bearbeitet werden, im Depot lagern und kaum öffentlich zugänglich sind, denken wir außerdem darüber nach, mit einigen davon eine kleine Kabinettausstellung zu veranstalten.