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Insight story

University of Michigan Provenance Research Project

The University of Michigan has embarked on a multi-year project to research its museum and library collections to identify objects that may have been unlawfully appropriated during World War II and to make public information that results from this project. The project, coordinated by the Museum of Art on behalf of the University, will focus on objects made or traded in continental Europe that were created before 1946 and acquired by the University of Michigan after 1932.

The project is an effort to comply with guidelines issued by the American Association of Museums in 1999 and 2001 as well as the University’s own standards for ethical practice.

Historical Background

During World War II, Adolf Hitler and his regime were responsible for an aggressive and methodical campaign to confiscate, hoard, and destroy cultural assets. Special military art units were designated to confiscate works of art and other cultural artifacts from European museums and the private collections of Jewish citizens, other groups targeted for extermination, such as homosexuals, Catholics, and Poles, and political opponents.

Hundreds of thousands of artworks were confiscated by the German military. Art that was seen as representing the National Socialist Party’s accepted view of German national heritage was designated for the collections of German museums. It was Hitler’s plan to found a museum in his hometown of Linz and to have it become, along with other museums in Berlin, Munich, and Nuremberg, a symbol of Germanic success and cultural superiority. Some art objects were kept as personal possessions by high-ranking military officers, many of whom—including Hitler—were art collectors.

German public museums were encouraged to remove works that did not conform to Nazi artistic standards. These objects, deemed “degenerate,” were primarily modern works of Cubism, Expressionism, and Fauvism by both French and German artists. Some of these artifacts were destroyed, but many were sold by the Nazi party to fund its military activities or to purchase other more desirable works of art.

Immediately following the war, a number of governments and major museums undertook extensive investigations in an attempt to return looted works to their owners. Many objects were returned, but a large number (40,000 according to some estimates) remained unaccounted for. Recognizing that these restitution efforts were insufficient and that looted objects may have unknowingly become part of the permanent collections of many American museums, the United States government mandated American museums to undertake additional research that would uncover provenance problems and participate in a coordinated way in the worldwide effort to return art stolen during the Nazi era to its owners and their heirs. To this end, the American Association of Museums (AAM) has developed a set of guidelines to help museums maintain the highest ethical and legal standards regarding unlawfully appropriated objects.

UMMA’s Research Efforts

Using AAM guidelines as a framework, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) has identified works in its collections that are at highest risk for having been looted during World War II. These include all paintings, sculptures, and drawings by European and American artists created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932 that may have been traded in continental Europe.

The Museum of Art is committed to making the results of this research accessible to the public. All works that are determined to have changed hands in continental Europe during the critical years, or those with a gap in their provenance, will be submitted to the AAM’s Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal—a tool designed to provide people searching for lost items with a single searchable registry of objects that changed hands in continental Europe from 1933 to 1945.