Research into war-time provenance at the British Museum

Since 1997 the British Museum has been researching the provenance of its collections to establish whether works that had previously been stolen by the Nazis in the period 1933–1945 had unwittingly been acquired. Similar initiatives have taken place around spoliation during the Holocaust and World War II in public museums across the UK, Europe, Canada and the United States; for further details, see G. Bartrum, ‘Research into war-time provenance at the British Museum’, British Museum Magazine, no. 37, Summer 2000, pp. 13-15.

Action in the U.K. has been coordinated by the working group set up in June 1998 by the National Museum Directors’ Conference (NMDC) which is chaired by the director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota. Full details of the research taking place in museums and galleries across the UK can be seen on the government’s Collections Trust website. Reports are provided by each institution, including the British Museum, of items for which further information is sought and the provenance is uncertain or incomplete for the period 1933–1945. In such cases where it is known that an object was forcibly obtained by the Nazis, every effort has been made to ascertain that it was correctly restituted at the end of World War II and that the Museum’s subsequent acquisition was made with good title. Those interested in enquiring about specific items should contact the institution concerned. Claims may be subject to review and recommendation by the UK government Spoliation Advisory Panel.

The value and portability of works on paper, particularly Old Master drawings, has meant that special emphasis has been paid to provenance research in the Department of Prints and Drawings. Few drawings have an unbroken provenance history from their time of creation to the present day, and it is often difficult to ascertain their ownership during the critical period of 1933-1945. Research on the departmental register and letter books has recently eliminated some 860 drawings from the enquiry by clarifying ownership details; work continues in this area when resources are available. All the known information on the history of ownership of the Museum’s collection, together with images, of well over 50,000 British and Continental European drawings is available through the collection online. Where the Museum has been unable to confirm ownership details of a drawing, the following statement has been added to the online record: ‘This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933–45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era’ and brief details of these drawings are listed here: Continental drawings (PDF) and here: British drawings (PDF). When spoliation questions have arisen regarding drawings in the British Museum, such as the works that were found to have been seized from Dr Arthur Feldmann in 1939, they have been promptly investigated and resolved.

Parmigianino, Holy Family, c.1530-40, formerly in the Feldmann collection

Parmigianino, Holy Family, c.1530–40, formerly in the Feldmann collection, acquired by the British Museum in 1946
BM 1946,1116.1

Claims settled by the British Museum

Feldmann drawings, 2006

  Report of the Spoliation Advisory Panel

Porcelain in the British Museum and Fitzwilliam Museum, 2008

 Report of the Spoliation Advisory Panel

14 clocks and watches, 2012

 Report of the Spoliation Advisory Panel

Drawing in the style of George Pencz, 2013

Press release: Spoliation case settled 

Drawing by Allaert van Everdingen, 2014

 Press release: Spoliation case settled