A key task of museums is to ascertain the origin (provenance) of their holdings. Since 2011, the Museum of Hamburg History has investigated objects in its collection which were acquired between 1933 and 1945 and may therefore have found their way into the museum in particular from Jewish owners under threat of persecution, financial despoliation and forced emigration.
Under National Socialism “robbery” was sponsored by the state. An international conference devoted to this theme was held in 1998. It agreed on 11 principles by which the 44 participating countries – including the Federal Republic of Germany – undertook to ensure for their public collections that the search for confiscated Jewish cultural objects be intensified based on their legal and practical capabilities and to then find fair and just solutions. This intention was confirmed and underscored by a corresponding declaration of the German Federal Government, Länder and German municipal government associations.
The Museum of Hamburg History is committed to active investigation and documentation of the provenance of those of its collection items which were acquired during the NS era. Following the first initiatives of this kind during the 1950ies, the museum has resumed this effort since 2011.
With professional and financial support from the Institute of Museum Research of the State Museums of Berlin / Prussian Heritage Foundation, it has been possible since August 2011 to investigate the painting and silver collections of the museum for acquisitions under duress. The aim is to identify and document as seamlessly as possible the ownership sequence of the objects concerned between the year 1933 and their acquisition. It is often difficult not only for persecuted owners and their descendants to localise their property today, but also for public collections to determine the provenance of their holdings. The acquisition sources were often concealed at the time. In addition to examination of the objects themselves, provenance research includes archive and auction catalogue research as well as other investigations.
The Hamburg Museum is committed to documenting both the unique nature and historical provenance of each object and specifying the original owners and their fate. The establishment of the Provenance Research Working Unit in Berlin in 2008 and public access to the “Lost Art” database for determination of search and discovery reports in 2001 provide an excellent foundation for this project.