Many museums in the United States, including the Portland Art Museum, examine the provenance of works of art that may have changed hands during the Nazi era (1933-1945) in Europe. Provenance research, or the study of an artwork’s history, is an ongoing part of the scholarly work at the Museum. A special effort was made to clarify any gaps in the provenance of works in the Museum collection that were acquired after 1932 and created before 1946 in order to determine rightful ownership. The Museum continues to research provenance on all new acquisitions that fall within the Nazi era.
In the years prior to and during World War II, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis confiscated many of the art holdings of governments, institutions, and individuals in the countries they subjugated. Hitler and his advisors admired traditional European art, mainly realistic genre painting, because these works were easy to understand and upheld what they considered to be respectable moral values. They kept the finest examples of this art for their private collections or to display in a museum they planned to build in Linz, Austria. From the moment the Nazis came to power, however, they launched a campaign to purge modernist artwork, especially abstract, Cubist, Expressionist and Surrealist art. They burned some of this art, but they exchanged much of it with international dealer-collaborators for Old Master paintings.
In the decades following World War II, many American museums unknowingly received confiscated works of art. Now, museums are participating in an effort to enable rightful owners or their descendants to identify works lost from their art collections. The Portland Art Museum is currently researching works from its permanent collection that have gaps in their provenances.
To find out more about the Museum’s provenance research, share information about works of art in the Museum’s collection, or request digital images of these works for provenance purposes, please contact the Registrar Department at 503.276.4214.