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A painting's provenance

Elisabeth Jorck von Wartenburg / dbNovember 8, 2013

Even before some 1,400 works of art were found in Munich, a number of art historians across Germany spend their days looking into where and how museums built their collections. DW visited one of the researchers.

Britta Olényi (left) and Jasmin Hartmann look at the back of "Genien auf der Lichtlilien" Photo DW/Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
Image: DW/E. Yorck von Wartenburg

Jasmin Hartmann leafs through a yellowed book with small sketches and handwritten remarks. In lines 1937-9, she finds what she has been looking for: an important clue concerning the history of the drawing she is researching.

The art historian started working for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne a month ago as a provenance researcher. It is her job to check the provenance of 2,500 works of art: did the museum purchase the drawings, water colors and etchings legally, or does the collection include art looted by the Nazis.

A museum's yellowed art inventory book Photo DW/Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
Inventory books keep records of an artwork's pastImage: DW/E. Yorck von Wartenburg

Difficult puzzle

"It's like a puzzle of clues," Hartmann said of her work. "I do research from the inside out. First, I look at the artwork itself; then I search for documentation in the museum and in archives."

The yellowing book is an inventory that includes artwork the museum purchased between 1933 and 1945.

Currently, Hartmann is looking into "Genien auf der Lichtlilie" by Philipp Otto Runge, considered one of the best German romantic painters. She happens on a reference that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum bought the painting from the Leipzig-based Boerner auction house in 1937. That is a suspicious fact she must follow up on, the art historian said.

Hartmann stands in front of Genien auf der Lichtlilie Photo DW/Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
Hartmann eventually solved the mystery of the LichtlilieImage: DW/E. Yorck von Wartenburg

The purchase occurred at a time when the Nazi regime seized numerous works of art from Jewish families and political opponents. Auction houses and art dealers like Hildebrandt Gurlitt, whose collection has just been discovered in his son's Munich apartment, sold some of the paintings to German museums.

Gurlitt is not unknown at the Cologne museum. During World War II, the art dealer sold the museum the painting "Landscape With a Cracked Bridge" by Dutch painter Meindert Hobbema.s Originally part of a private Jewish collection, it was auctioned off in Paris in 1941 at far too low a price. Hildebrandt Gurlitt won the bid in Paris, and sold the painting to the Cologne museum shortly thereafter. In the meantime, the painting has been returned to the descendants of the original owner.

Under the magnifying glass

Shortly after the war, many public museums returned artwork they had unlawfully purchased, at least in cases that were easy to determine. However, countless works of art whose provenance can't be traced still remain in museum collections today.

When it comes to Nazi-confiscated art, the 44 signatory governments to the 1998 Washington Conference Principles pledged to closely inventory their assets and return works their museums had received under dubious circumstances to the heirs of the victims of the Nazi regime.

A collector's stamp on the back of an artwork Photo DW/Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
Collectors' stamps on the back of an artwork can provide clues to its pastImage: DW/E. Yorck von Wartenburg

As one of the first public houses, the Wallraf-Richartz launched a three-year project in 2000 to examine 280 paintings. Apart from the Meindert Hobbema landscape, the museum returned one other painting to its rightful owner.

Subsidies for research

Art historian Britta Olenyi von Husen coordinates the research on behalf of the City of Cologne.

Britta Olényi von Husen. Photo: DW/Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
Olenyi von Husen said there are not enough researchers to look into every provenance requestImage: DW/E. Yorck von Wartenburg

"The Wallraf-Museum's collection of graphic art is very extensive, so we've approached the desk for provenance research in Berlin to target certain works," Olenyi von Husen said. The Berlin-based office for providence research is the first point of reference when museums like the Wallraf-Richartz want to research the assets of a collection. The office receives 2 million euros ($2.69 million) in funds from the federal Culture Ministry to distribute to the individual museums "Provenance research today is much more important than it was before the Washington agreement, but there are still very few positions," Olenyi von Husen said.

Cologne has been lucky in that it has had a position in the city's culture department since 2007 to supervise provenance research in eight Cologne museums. All the same, there is not enough staff for the time-intensive job. "There are too many requests for too few researchers," Olenyi von Husen said.

Mystery solved

Hartmann is already busy with the next drawing - she solved the case of the "Genius of the Lily." It's not Nazi loot: Her research showed that Otto Runge's son left the drawing to the Hamburg Artists' Association, where the artwork remained until it was auctioned.