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On the Back of Art: An Exhibition about Provenance

Key Visual of the exhibition
Key Visual of the exhibition “Lives of Images”
Copyright: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

On the Back of Art: An Exhibition about Provenance

Museum Berggruen

For the past three years the Zentralarchiv (Central Archive) has been researching the provenances of works in the Berggruen Collection. These findings are shown in a new exhibition, The Lives of Images. Provenances in Museum Berggruen.

At the conclusion of a three-year provenance research project concerning works in the Museum Berggruen collection, the Nationalgalerie and the Zentralarchiv are presenting the exhibition The Lives of Images. Provenances in Museum Berggruen. The show tells the little-known biographies of paintings, drawings and sculptures on display by artists who include Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque.

The aim of the research project carried out from 2015 to 2018 was to investigate the provenances (background histories) of 135 works from the former private collection of Heinz Berggruen that predate 1945 and are now part of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation). During that three-year period, the provenances of the works were systematically examined to determine whether they involved cultural assets seized in the course of National Socialist persecution, in particular property stemming from Jewish ownership.

By the end of the project a loss due to National Socialist persecution could be ruled out or was considered highly unlikely for nearly two thirds (83 works) of the objects investigated. This clarification had only been possible for 38 works in 2015. It was also established that four works (by Pablo Picasso) had been confiscated from Jewish collectors in France by special forces at the German Embassy or by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR; Rosenberg Special Task Force). All four works were deemed Nazi war loot right after the war and immediately restituted to their rightful owners. Only later did they come into Heinz Berggruen’s collection.

No definitive case of a work of art confiscated due to National Socialist persecution, beyond those subjected to conclusive restitution proceedings, could be ascertained. Nearly a third of the artworks (48) still have gaps in their provenances. In other words, the previous owners or the time periods in which they owned the works cannot be fully traced at this time. In the future these gaps may eventually be filled in by new research and outside leads that build on the publication of these research findings.

The project on provenance research at the Museum Berggruen is supported by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation; a foundation under civil law).

Book publication

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication providing details about former owners and a timeline of possession for objects in the Museum Berggruen holdings catalogue. Biographies of selected works as well as essays illustrate the history of the private collection of Heinz Berggruen, make former owners known, and provide an introduction to the complexities of provenance and the research into it. Reproductions, photos of reverse sides, historical records, portraits of collectors and dealers, an index of investigated works with extensive provenance details and a glossary of people referred to complete the volume. The publication “Biografien der Bilder. Provenienzen im Museum Berggruen” is available in the Bookshop Walther König or online (in german only).

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