Office for Non-State Museums in Bavaria
The Landesstelle für die nichtstaatlichen Museen in Bayern is the central point of contact for non-state museums in Bavaria, including for matters relating to provenance research. On the one hand, the Landesstelle advises those museums that already have the necessary staff and financial resources in place to carry out provenance research on their own. On the other, the project workers on site are responsible for the museums and assist them in making their own business documents available and in carrying out archive research. The main objective is to document the circumstances relating to the acquisition of specific collection holdings between 1933 and 1945. The German Lost Art Foundation has supported the Landesstelle with two projects to date. The aim is to clarify the need for further provenance research in the institutions and ensure the museums are in a position to carry out the research work on their own. They can then submit an application to the Foundation for financial assistance if an initial suspicion is confirmed.
1. Why did you decide to cover provenance research in your portfolio of services?
The Landesstelle wants to offer smaller museums in particular the opportunity to carry out provenance research. They demonstrate a willingness to deal with this topic and take responsibility for their own collections. However, many museums do not have the necessary personnel—many of them are staffed mainly by volunteers—or the financial resources to tackle this subject area on their own. That is where we come in as their first point of contact.
2. Which of the objects investigated has a particularly noteworthy history?
In the inventory book at Regensburg history museum, we found a receipt note for eight silk ladies’ umbrellas that had been bought in spring 1942 from the Regensburg tax office as part of “Aktion 3”. “Aktion 3” was the codename for the possessions left behind by deported Jews. We still don’t know whether the umbrellas came from a private household or a business that was closed down, but we were surprised to see such a clear and concise entry in the inventory book. That is quite unusual.
3. Were there any surprises in the course of the project or did anything strike you in particular?
We had not expected to come across so much Judaica, especially in regional museums or museums of local history, where we had not anticipated finding such a large amount of Nazi-confiscated property. Surprisingly, after the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, the local history museums in particular incorporated Jewish ritual objects into their collections. I find that very interesting from a research point of view, because it granted the objects a kind of connection to their homeland, whereas this had not been the case for their rightful owners.
4. What advice or guidance can you give to institutions that have little experience with provenance research to date?
If the institutions are in Bavaria, they should come to us with any questions they may have. There are also central points of contact and networks in Brandenburg, Saxony, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. If a museum has the opportunity to make use of this service, I would really recommend taking advantage of it.
Should an institution want to carry out provenance research independently, we recommend the following course of action: examine inventories and registers of items received as well as old correspondence, invoices or delivery notes, and follow this up with research in the city or state archives. The well-established databases can also provide further help, such as Lost Art and the Getty Provenance Index for information on the art market.
5. What particular challenges have you had to cope with during the project and when undertaking provenance research?
One of the things we learned was that those objects that have the story of their expropriation—and subsequent restitution—widely reported in the press are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of numbers. Masterpieces receive the most attention. But the loss of treasured everyday items and household objects, which were sold off at auctions, would undoubtedly also have been painful for the victims from whom they were seized. However, researching the provenance of objects like these is often very difficult due to the lack of sources. Tax offices did not publish catalogs for these auctions, which could have been preserved. And conventional research activities and databases are not usually very effective here either. That means the research is often very complex, particularly when it comes to researching the provenance of objects with a relatively low material value. We are currently undertaking a second project to make progress in this area. We are examining the Gestapo personal files at the Würzburg State Archives and analyzing the auction records in them. This gives us a better understanding of the specific mechanisms that were behind the expropriation of everyday objects.