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hands touching a bronze rooster.
The looted Benin Bronze known as the Okukur was returned from Jesus College in Cambridge to NigeriaImage: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/picture alliance

How provenance research came into the spotlight

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer
April 12, 2022

April 13 marks International Day of Provenance Research. Along with a new awareness of colonial crimes, the Gurlitt trove and Benin Bronzes cases have fostered change in Germany.


To become a specialist in provenance research, there are now several specialized study programs in Germany.

This is not yet the case in France and Switzerland, for example, where only a single program focusing on this area is available in each country.

Provenance research has only recently emerged as a field of study of its own.

Before that, it was rather part of other university programs, such as art history or archaeology, explains Felicity Bodenstein, a lecturer at the Sorbonne University in Paris. "We researchers have always investigated the origin of objects. The fact that jobs — albeit few — are now being created in this field is a recent development over the past five to six years."

The Gurlitt case

In Germany, the Gurlitt case definitely contributed to the expansion of this field of ​​research. 

The case refers to the 2013 discovery of a trove of artworks in a Munich apartment. This apartment, along with a house in Salzburg where more concealed works were found, belonged to Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in 2014. He was the son and heir of Hildebrand Gurlitt, Adolf Hitler's main art dealer during World War II.

Among the 1,500 works found hidden in Gurlitt's trove, several were proven to have been looted from Jews by the Nazis.

In order to solve the case, a task force was set up at the time and the online database "Lost Art" was created to help former owners and their heirs to track their cultural property that was looted as a result of Nazi persecution.

The search for Nazi-looted art has been an important concern for decades, not only in Germany but also in many European countries and in the USA: In 1998, 45 countries signed the "Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art," which lists guidelines on the restitution of such works.

The Benin Bronzes and colonial-looted art

Meanwhile, Felicity Bodenstein points out that the focus is no longer only on Nazi-looted art, but also on "objects that are described as ethnographic or non-European."

The most prominent example in this context are the Benin Bronzes from present-day Nigeria.

The German Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has the second largest collection of these priceless cultural objects, which were looted from the royal palace in Benin City by British soldiers in 1897 and subsequently sold on the European art market.

British colonial troops posing with looted statues and ivory
In 1897, British troops burned and plundered the Royal Palace in Benin City. Here some of them pose with their lootImage: CPA Media Co. Ltd/picture alliance

In early 2021, Germany agreed to restitute important pieces from its collection to Nigeria, starting in 2022. But it was a protracted process.

There were already restitution claims from Nigeria in the 1970s. The debate was reignited following the construction of the controversial Berlin Humboldt Forum museum, which opened in September 2021 and where the Benin Bronzes will also be exhibited before their return.

Felicity Bodenstein is part of the "Digital Benin" working group, which is researching the origin of the bronzes. They want to find out who are the rightful owners of these pieces. The goal is to "centrally collect the data of all the cultural assets stolen in Benin City in 1897," the researcher told DW. "Working with our Nigerian partners, it became clear that there was a need to provide easier access to information related to these objects."

Debate over Benin bronzes

There are often few or no archive notes documenting how cultural assets were acquired in the colonial context. "The British troops obviously did not keep lists of what they took with them. Many items were also taken as personal booty by individual military personnel," says Bodenstein. And since they were well aware of their wrongdoing, they had even less reasons to keep track of their acquisitions, she adds.

Cooperation with partners from the countries which now own the works and those from where the works were looted is therefore essential to be able to identify the works in the first place. Photos contribute to creating this database.

Improving provenance research is one thing; the actual restitution of works is another.

Germany has meanwhile expressed its will to come to terms with its colonial past and, where possible, return items from its museums' collections that have been unfairly obtained. However, unlike Austria, Germany does not yet have a mandatory restitution law.

The Day of Provenance Research has been observed annually since 2019; more than 95 cultural institutions in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and the USA will be observing it this year. In Germany it is of particular importance as it is an attempt to draw more attention to the origin of cultural assets and to increase public awareness as to how those works landed in the country's museums.

This article was originally written in German. 

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