Provenance Research

What is Provenance?

Provenance is an artwork’s history of ownership from its creation to the present. Information about the owners of a work of art reveals aspects of the historic and social role of the object throughout time. Provenance can also provide insights into shifting aesthetic tastes, market conditions, and collecting priorities for both individuals and institutions.

Provenance Research at the Birmingham Museum of Art

The Birmingham Museum of Art has paid increasing attention to the provenance of its collections since its founding in 1951.Tracing the ownership history of works in our collection is now an integral part of collection stewardship. Through a heightened commitment to researching the works of art in its permanent collection, the Museum is now critically examining the provenances of works that have long been accessioned as well as recent acquisitions. The BMA strives to publish as much provenance research as possible on our website.

Where can provenance information about the BMA collection be found?

Clicking on the “Collections” tab at the top of the website will show you individual works in the Museum’s collection. Here, you can also search for specific works or artists. Clicking on an individual work will lead to a page with more detailed information on the object.

If provenance and inscription information is available online for the work, there will be a “More” button on the right-hand side of the individual object page. Clicking this button will lead to a drop-down of the work’s provenance and inscriptions. While information on works in the collection is continuously being added to the website, not all information is available online. We may have more research that is not yet digitally available. See below for how to get in touch with us.

Reading Provenance Narratives and Inscriptions

Provenance narratives for works of art in the Birmingham Museum of Art collection are listed in chronological order beginning with the earliest-known owner. Birth and death dates of owners, when known, are listed in parentheses. Commercial dealers are identified by the word ‘dealer’ prior to their name. Relationships between owners and methods of transactions are indicated by punctuation. A semicolon indicates that the work passed directly between two owners. A period indicates that it is unknown that a transfer occurred between the two owners, or that it is unknown who owned the work for some duration between the two owners. Information that helps to clarify ownership information or provides sources is listed as endnotes.

Inscriptions are vital clues for provenance research as they often record an object’s ownership, exhibition, or auction history. Inscriptions can include marks, labels, stickers, and annotations on works and frames. Their descriptions begin with their location on the work, followed by a description of their medium. A forward slash indicates line breaks in the inscription. Commentary on the inscription is given in brackets.

As we update and expand our object data, information such as provenances and inscriptions on the website may read differently from object to object.

Nazi-Era Research

While in power from 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime of Germany conducted large-scale theft and forced transfers of art throughout Europe. Following World War II, many works were returned  to their rightful owners, descendants of rightful owners, and countries from which the objects had been taken. Many more works were destroyed or remained lost, or could not or were not properly restituted.

Alongside other members of the American Alliance of Museums, the Birmingham Museum of Art is working to identify works in our collection that may have been unlawfully appropriated by Nazi Germany and were later acquired by the Museum without knowledge of these objects’ earlier histories between 1933 and 1945. This research aims to determine if any works in our collection were taken from their rightful owners by the Nazis before entering the collection.

For example, the Museum has identified two works in its collection that were appropriated by Nazi Germany: Entrée d’un gave (Source of a Mountain Stream) by Gustave Courbet and Les Portraits de MM. de Béthune jouant avec un chien (The Children of the Marquis de Béthune Playing with a Dog) by François-Hubert Drouais. Both were found to have been properly restituted after the war and subsequently entered the art market before coming the BMA. The provenances for both of these works can be read by clicking on the links above.

Ongoing Research

The information included in the Birmingham Museum of Art’s online collection search reflects the current state of research and is subject to change as new research is conducted. The complete provenance of a given work is often difficult or impossible to establish as ownership information is lost, records were never created, or works are sold anonymously. Gaps in provenance do not necessarily mean that a work was stolen, only that the history of the object cannot be reconstructed or has not yet been reconstructed.

The Birmingham Museum of Art welcomes any information that would clarify the ownership history of the objects in its collection. Send information by email to: provenance@artsbma.org