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An Art Detective Story: The Case of the Missing Provenance

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

As the Smith College Museum of Art prepared for the arrival of the Bartholomäus Bruyn altarpiece from Germany, a close examination of its ownership history, or provenance, became a high priority. This research was necessary to establish clear title and rule out any likelihood that the early 16th-century painting had been unlawfully seized during the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.

According to the American Association of Museum’s guidelines and principles issued in 1999, museums must “take all reasonable steps to resolve the Nazi-era provenance status of objects before acquiring them for their collections.”

“This requires diligence,” says Linda Muehlig, associate curator of paintings and sculpture and associate director of curatorial affairs. “We are required to do as much research as we can and, in doing so, to turn over every stone we can to establish ownership.”

Indeed, no stone went unturned, according to Henriette Kets de Vries, who was at the time a curatorial assistant for special projects and is now manager of the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. “This Holocaust era is an especially difficult period in which to establish solid provenance,” she says, “especially in a time of great turmoil and upheaval in Germany, which was bombed to bits during the war.”

Although the details of ownership were sparse, Muehlig says Kets de Vries “did exceptional research, considering the difficulties in filling in the information gaps. But we couldn’t have gone forward with the purchase otherwise.”

Filling in the Gaps

“The provenance gap started in 1924 and continued up to the current owners. I was dealing with the problem that the current owners wanted to remain anonymous, which stalled the provenance research for a while until I found out who they were,” says Kets de Vries. “The art dealer who was brokering the sale gave me the name of the previous owner, so then I had a starting point.”

From there, Kets de Vries contacted and began correspondence with a long list of individuals and institutions, from art dealers and prominent German families to the Harvard University Art Museums, the State Archives in Nuremberg and the Lempertz Auction House in Cologne. In addition, she combed Holocaust-era records at the United States National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., looking for the significance of numbers and initials found on the back of the painting, and consulted such Web databases as Lost Art Internet Database and the Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1933 to 1945.

Focusing on the 20th century, she traced the altarpiece’s history to German inventor and well-known businessman Rudolph Chillingworth, who owned the artwork in the early 1920s. Although Chillingworth apparently sold the piece in a 1924 private sale, no bill of sale could be found—only a potential name mentioned in an auction catalogue, which became another lead to probe.

Meanwhile, as with all the German names that Kets de Vries investigated, it was necessary to eliminate the possibility of Nazi affiliations for Chillingworth—although the short time in the early 1920s that he owned the altarpiece was well outside the critical span of years relevant to Nazi provenance issues. “The only direct link I found to the Nazis was that Chillingworth’s company, a Nurnberger Steel components factory, as well as many other German companies, used forced labor during World War II. But this obviously happened well after 1924,” she notes.

The Details Make the Story

None of this is meant to imply that Kets de Vries discovered any unlawful seizure of the altarpiece during the Holocaust era, because she did not. What the museum now knows about the ownership history of the altarpiece is this: members of one German family owned the painting continuously for some period of time between the years 1924 and 1955. “However, we have not been able to establish whether [the grandmother] acquired the altarpiece directly from Rudolph Chillingworth in 1924,” says Muehlig. “We believe it is highly likely that that is the scenario, but we have not been able to document it with a bill of sale or anything in writing. Her grandson, who inherited the altarpiece, believes it was acquired by his grandmother in the 1920s, which strongly suggests that she did buy it from Chillingworth—but a memory does not establish ownership.”

It is difficult to determine the complete provenance of a work of art such as this one, Muehlig says, but she is confident about the information uncovered thus far. “Research doesn’t always result in absolutes,” she notes, “and in this case, the point is that we followed every single possible lead, and we believe that we have the full story on the provenance.”

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