An interview with the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
From 2013 to 2016, the holdings of the Drawings Collection at the Kupferstichkabinett of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin underwent systematic provenance research with support from the German Lost Art Foundation. The aim was to detect any cultural assets seized as a result of Nazi persecution, especially Jewish property. This collection of drawings, watercolors and oil sketches mainly from the 19th and early 20th centuries was founded as a separate department within the Nationalgalerie in 1878, following the transfer of a collection from what had been the Royal Kupferstichkabinett. It has been housed in the Kupferstichkabinett since 1992. During the National Socialist period, around 1,200 works were acquired for the Drawings Collection. They came directly from the artists’ studios, from private owners or from art dealers and, increasingly from 1938 onwards, from auctions.
1. Why did you and your institution decide to undertake provenance research?
The Kupferstichkabinett has been successfully carrying out provenance research for many years. Some 200 works have been restituted since 1999. As these have mainly related to the Drawings Collection, it was logical to start a systematic and proactive search for Nazi-confiscated property there. Moreover, these holdings are documented extremely well: in addition to the meticulously recorded inventory book, the acquisition files in the central archives have been almost completely preserved.
2. Which of the objects investigated has a particularly noteworthy history?
Each individual drawing has its very own distinctive history. The biographies of these objects would fill volumes. Their stories are fascinating, bizarre and sometimes very moving and sad. Each one makes a small contribution towards a better understanding of the mechanisms of art policy and its stakeholders in the Nazi regime, even for works that are not suspected of having been seized as a result of Nazi persecution—they make up the majority and also provide insights into the history of the museum.
3. Were there any surprises in the course of the project or did anything strike you in particular?
The project broke relatively new ground with the systematic research of a graphics collection, meaning that virtually every finding was a surprise. I was amazed to discover that the previous owners were rarely the large, well-known collectors whose biographies were already familiar. For a smaller owner, a drawing or print was more affordable than a prestigious painting or a sculpture, and in some circumstances it had also been purchased in a junk shop. So very basic research needed to be carried out here.
4. What advice or guidance can you give to institutions that have little experience with provenance research to date?
Start provenance research in your museum with a part of a collection that is documented as accurately as possible, and don’t create too large a volume of research at the beginning. The amount of time needed for provenance research is enormous and difficult to calculate in advance. In my experience, it is better to carry out a smaller number of research activities focused on the same content, such as those sorted by acquisition source. This often results in amazing synergies for the remaining holdings which could not have been predicted beforehand.
5. What particular challenges have you had to cope with during the project and when undertaking provenance research?
For provenance researchers in graphics collections, it is primarily the acquisitions from auction houses that are the biggest challenge. In the case of the Drawings Collection, around 250 works were bought at auction. It is therefore necessary to find out who the consignors were. Auction houses rarely have archives, so in most cases the only clues are the lot numbers and the ownership abbreviations assigned to them in the auction catalogs—these are initials with or without location information, Roman numerals, aliases or other abstract codings. Deciphering even a single abbreviation can take weeks. One of the biggest tasks, especially in large scale collections therefore has to be deciphering these abbreviations in auction catalogs. You will not make any progress in terms of one object because single lots of personal possessions were dispersed among different museums via the auction. So, in a worst case scenario, ten researchers at ten different museums could be working on the same abbreviation without knowing about each other. This problem will only be solved by forming independent research teams that systematically work on the relevant auctions. Therefore it is important to reinforce research activities in the field of art trading and also database structures.