“Provenance” refers to the ownership of a work of art across time. Its study is essential to our understanding of the cultural, social and economic contexts that saw the creation of these works, as well as those that helped determine their later histories.
Provenance may also have legal and ethical implications, requiring the return of looted or illegally exported works to their rightful owners. The National Gallery of Canada has a long tradition of undertaking this research; the provenances of many of our works are well known and have been published in our collection catalogues. Today, we continue to study the ownership histories of the works in our care, as well as investigate those of possible acquisitions.
Reconstructing an object’s provenance can be challenging. Even if it once existed, documentation may not survive or its interpretation may be ambiguous. Published and unpublished material must be identified, auction catalogues and dealers’ records tracked down, and past owners consulted. Many aspects of the art market were and are confidential: collectors frequently bought or sold works anonymously, and dealers and auction houses may be hesitant to reveal personal information. As well, many firms are no longer in business, their records lost or destroyed. While the Gallery aims to thoroughly document the provenances of works in its care, gaps in the chain of ownership – particularly for objects centuries old – are to be expected.
The Illicit Traffic in Works of Art
International concern led to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, accepted by Canada in 1978. The Convention’s goal is to end the illicit traffic in works of art and the consequent damage to our shared heritage, and to restitute looted or illegally exported works. Accordingly, the Gallery carefully assesses the provenances of both possible acquisitions and works already in our care to ensure that we meet these obligations.
The Confiscation of Works of Art During the Nazi Era, 1933–1945
From Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, through to the end of the Second World War, Nazi-led Germany confiscated cultural property on a massive scale, in particular targeting Jewish collectors. In the postwar years, although many of these works were returned to their rightful owners, many others entered the art market, their histories unknown or concealed.
Recognizing our ethical obligation to restitute looted works, the Gallery adopted the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, issued in 1998. The goal is to achieve a just and fair solution to claims for works that were looted and not subsequently restituted. To achieve this end, we follow guidelines issued the same year by the Association of Art Museum Directors’ Task Force on the Spoliation of Art During the Nazi/World War II Era, subsequently adopted by the Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization. These require the Gallery to identify works that may have been looted, to make this information public, and to resolve any claims in an equitable, appropriate and mutually agreeable manner.
Accordingly, the following resource lists the provenances for European works of art – chiefly painting and sculpture – created before 1946 and acquired after January 1933, which have been identified as having incomplete or potentially problematic ownership histories. Research is ongoing and additional works may be added. Inclusion on this list does not mean that a work is suspected or known to have been looted, simply that its provenance required investigation. In certain cases, the provenance is now fully known and no further action is needed; in others, questions remain.
Restitution is made according to the Gallery’s Disposition Policy, which governs de-accessioning.
China, Tang Dynasty
From the Kanjing Si temple, Longmen Caves, Henan Province
Fragment of a Relief with a Luohan c. 700–20
limestone; 84.3 cm high
The gift of Herman H. Levy, Hamilton, 1978, no. 23642
Looted at an unknown date, the Fragment of a Relief with a Luohan (alternately, Figure of an Arhat) was restituted to the People’s Republic of China by order of the Board of Trustees in 2001.
The Salon of Madame Aron 1904, repainted 1934
gouache and oil on paper; 55.3 × 62 cm
Purchased 1957, no. 6490
Looted by the Nazis from Alfred Lindon in 1942, The Salon of Madame Aron was restituted to his heirs by order of the Board of Trustees in 2006.
Learn more about the provenance of selected artworks in the National Gallery of Canada collection.