Holocaust-Era Assets

Holocaust-era Assets Symposium
National Archives & Records Administration
December 4, 1998

Deborah Wythe, Brooklyn Museum of Art
Archival Sources for Researching Holocaust-era Looted Art panel

Recordkeeping in Museums

Greg Bradsher asked me to participate in today's panel as a representative of the Museum Archives Section of the Society of American Archivists. I was chair of the Section in 1997-98, when I first heard Greg speak about the efforts here at the National Archives to assist researchers working on Holocaust-era assets. It was immediately clear that the Section had a role to play in the process. Museum archivists would be intimately involved in the search for lost works of art and we needed to get up to speed quickly. In that interest, the Section invited representatives from the Commission for Art Recovery and the Holocaust Art Restitution Project to participate in our working group at the 1998 SAA annual meeting. Evie Joselow and Marc Masurovsky represented those organizations, joining twelve museum archivists and NARA's Greg Bradsher to discuss what researchers need and how best we can work together.

The clearest outcome of our working group was realizing that without a clear understanding of what information is held by museums, in which departments, and under whose control, research efforts will be seriously hampered. My focus today, therefore, will be on recordkeeping in museums, in hope of smoothing your paths to the information you need. I will also try to suggest some ideas for using museum records to trace works of art that are not in museum collections.

The most critical issue to understand in museums is that some permanent or archival records are also permanently active and may well never physically reside in the archives. When a work of art is accepted into the permanent collection a body of records is created: these records will be consulted, revised, and added to as long as the object remains in the collection. Documents in the permanent record of a museum object may include donor agreements; accession forms; trustee approvals; cataloging data; releases and receipts; conservation reports; letters from the artist, donor or vendor; research, exhibition and publication history; and installation data. If it were as simple as this--a single "case file" on each work of art--your job would be easy. It is very likely a core file with basic data will exist, but it is also likely that other information about that object may also be found elsewhere in the museum. In order to find all the records -- one of which may contain that one crucial bit of information that you need -- you need to first understand the functions of several museum departments and find a way to gain access to records in some or all of them.

The second issue first: you will need a guide--who should you call? Some museums will probably be establishing an office or task force to deal with Holocaust-era assets issues; if one exists, that is obviously where you will start. If such a body is not in place, I would maintain that the museum archivist may well be your best contact. Most museum archivists manage institutional archives and are involved in managing both active and inactive records. The museum archives may not have the records that you need, but we have probably surveyed all records in the museum and know what is where and whom to call. Think of us as "Info central."

After some of this morning's questions, I think it's important to add some comments about open access to my presentation. My experience as a researcher in both the U.S. and Europe is that U.S. archives are much more likely to be both oen and to be consistent in their access policies, especially if a professional archivist is in charge. In museums, the degree of openness may vary, depending on whether the institution is public or private, but you should expect and receive equitable treatment from any professional archivist.

You can find out whether a museum has an archivist by simply calling, or you can check in the Official Museum Directory of the American Association of Museums, or contact the Society of American Archivists, which has a website at www.archivists.org. The Museum Archives Section newsletter is available online in the Resources section of the Canadian Heritage Information Network's website at www.chin.gc.ca. There has been a strong museum archives initiative, in the last fifteen or so years, supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and I would venture that many, if not most, sizable art museums now have an archival program.

As you begin to approach museums, it is important to keep in mind that the Association of Art Museum Directors calls for members to "facilitate access to provenance information on works of art in their collections." Finding the information may be laborious--as most archival research is--but the will to cooperate is in place. I have found that provenance questions are just about the most difficult queries that I handle in the archives of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. First, you are searching for information about the object prior to its presence in the museum; if the curators did not inquire, it probably was not volunteered and will not be in the files. Second, any information on file may be found in a wide variety of places in the archives. For a Print Department project a few years ago, I created a worksheet that identified fifteen possible sources to check for each object. We will all have to hone our detective skills.

What kind of information do you need to approach a museum to do research on an object? As in most research efforts, the more, and the more specific, the better. If you are interested in an object that you know or suspect is in the museum collection, it is important to know the artist and title and the year when it was acquired. It is helpful to provide the archivist with any names that may be connected with the work of art, since works are occasionally donated or sold through a third party. How can you find this information?

It would, of course, be helpful if museum collections were all documented in databases and on the Internet so that you could do some of the legwork before approaching a particular museum. Unfortunately, the path to automating museum collections has been a long and winding one, and many collections databases are still in the early stages of being built. You may be able to find some published collection catalogs--even if outdated--and should be able to research parts of a particular museum's collection by consulting the catalogs of retrospective or topical exhibitions. This preliminary library work is essential and will save time in the long run.

In some museums, an accession file may contain core information about an object--when and how it was acquired, from whom, any restrictions on the acquisition, conservation, exhibition and publication history, and provenance. This would be the ideal situation for researchers of looted Holocaust-era art. However, even if such a file exists, you should not assume that it contains all the information about an object.

Several job functions in museums deal with works of art; these functions may be performed in different departments, or, in smaller museums, by a single individual. Each results in different types of records, which may remain in the office or be transferred to the museum archives. Each museum will divide the work pie slightly differently, so doing effective research will require that you gain an understanding of the particular museum.

Curators select and acquire works of art, do research on them, and create exhibitions and installations. They may well be the caretakers of accession files on objects, but additional information is likely to be found in other record series. Curatorial files often contain correspondence with donors and vendors about works offered as gifts, for purchase, or in exchange. These records may be as simple as a two line letter offering or accepting an object, but may also contain extensive background on the work. Unfortunately, in my experience, the former is more likely than the latter. Often, a curator develops a long-term relationship with an individual or a dealer, so that information about a particular transaction may be found some time before it actually occurs and may be followed up years later. The museum in question may not have purchased the object in question, but another museum may have. Since this correspondence does not deal directly with the acquisition of a specific object, it may never find its way into the accession file. It may be filed under the donor or dealer's name, within general correspondence, in a category such as "objects offered," or even under the country and city within a geographical correspondence series.

Some of the most important work that curators do happens in conjunction with an exhibition or the publication of a catalog. At that time, they focus on research about the objects and may seek information from a variety of sources inside and outside of the institution. The results of the research may be published in the exhibition or collection catalog, or they may remain as notes in the files of that project. As a result, some of your most important work must be done first in the museum library, finding and studying these publications and then approaching the archivist to see if there are any working files with further information.

In a similar method of following the information trail, you may want to follow up on the exhibition record of a work of art, which you will find in the work's core record. When a object is loaned to another institution, the curator at that museum may do in depth research that will reveal important details of its provenance.

Executive administration often overlaps curatorial functions somewhat, in the areas of donor contact and acquisition approval. The acquisition process always includes some level of approval by the museum director or trustees. In many cases, the curator must present an argument for acquiring the work, including an analysis of its importance and perhaps some history. Sometimes these presentations are in writing, sometimes not. It is worth inquiring. Legal records, such as bequest, donation, and legal action files, may reside in executive or legal counsel offices and can provide valuable information on ownership.

The museum Registrar is responsible for recording or registering an object whenever it enters or leaves the museum and for the physical handling of the objects as they move into, within, and outside of the museum. The registrar's office assigns each object a unique accession number, facilitating management of the collection.

Core accession records may well reside with the Registrar instead of the curator, depending on the organizational structure of the museum. Formal cataloging or description of the objects in a collection requires a joint effort between curatorial and registrar's departments; the information may be managed by either department or by a separate catalog department.

Registrarial records include deeds of gift or purchase receipts, incoming and outgoing loan forms, formal acquisition records such as trustee approvals, exhibition loan records, insurance records. These records will provide crucial data on the owner of a work at the time of accession; they may also, however, reveal earlier ownership, if a work of art was loaned to the institution at an earlier date. This is not uncommon: curators are often aware of works long before they acquire them and may well have borrowed them for examination or inclusion in an exhibition.

The collections management function involves maintaining identification and location information and managing daily movements of the objects within the building. This function may carried out by a separate department or may be part of either the curatorial or registrar's offices. While it is not likely that collections managers will have records documenting the provenance of an object, they may well be responsible for the museum's collections database and as such a valuable resource for quickly determining an object's acquisition date and donor or vendor; they may also be able to perform broad searches to create lists of objects acquired during a particular time period or from a particular dealer.

Just as the collections management function may reside in various places in the institution's organizational structure, other functions may be divided or combined. In some museums, a separate exhibitions department handles that function. Curatorial responsibilities are divided by medium, or period or geographical area. Photographs of a work of art may be found in curatorial or registrar's files, or they may fall under a photography studio or rights and reproductions division. In order to find what you need, you have to know where to look and where best to look first. The archivist may be your best guide in understanding all of the interactions.

Any or all of the records described above may reside in the museum archives. However, it is most likely that basic information about objects is maintained in active offices, but that backup information may be found by searching through inactive correspondence and exhibition files in the archives.

What other museum resources might be helpful in tracking objects that are not in the museum's collections? The most important one that comes to mind is exhibitions. Most museum exhibitions contain a mixture of objects in the collection and objects on loan. If a work is important, it may have been loaned to several museums over a period of decades. The published catalogs of these shows will reveal a timeline of ownership. If the work is listed as "anonymous loan," you may find it more difficult to establish ownership, since owner identification is considered restricted in such cases. Most museums will have a procedure in place to deal with such requests.

How to find exhibition data? Some museums and art organizations have published union catalogs of exhibition series; others have created or are creating databases for easy access to exhibition checklists.

The one thing that is common to all of the information and approaches that I have described is the need to focus on a particular work of art. Access to curatorial and registrar's record is generally by artist, date of acquisition, and (possibly) donor or vendor. If you are looking at a specific work, this may be sufficient. If you are looking for all transactions involving a specific dealer, it may be doable, although you would miss some in which a donor bought from a vendor and immediately donated the work to the museum. If you are trying to trace a specific collection that was broken up, the task is Herculean. While the provenance information may be in the object record, it will probably not be traced in any of the registrar's indexes. Collection databases may or may not be advanced enough to help.

Which brings me to my final topic: the two different approaches of HARP and the Commission for Art Recovery, as I understand them from our Section working group in Orlando. HARP is gathering any and all information about looted art, to be placed in a database. The Commission for Art Recovery is assisting claimants searching for specific works of art. The latter is easier for museum archivists to deal with, with one problem: my understanding is that the actual list of claims is restricted. We are therefore limited to helping if staff approach us, rather than being able to review the list and make a quick search to see if we might have any information that could help, directly or indirectly. The HARP approach is extremely broad and, once the database is constructed, may provide a useful resource. However, gathering information for the database will require a significant amount of fieldwork.

The quickest way to find information about objects is through well-focused questions and on specific objects--this kind of research archivists are able to help with most efficiently. The most thorough way is to look at everything and put together all the varied bits and pieces. Archivists will be able to assist you with this kind of research, but will not be able to do it for you. They will point you toward to most likely record series and bring you the boxes. From there, it is a matter of following all of the many leads and doing the detective work that is the truly rewarding part of your research and of our jobs as museum archivists. We look forward to working with you and wish you success with your search.

Top of Page

Holocaust-Era Assets >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.