Tags for: Provenance Research
  • Magazine Article
  • Collection
  • Ingalls Library and Museum Archives

Provenance Research

The Ingalls Library and Museum Archives is a world leader in discovering the ownership histories of works of art
August 8, 2016
View of Florence

Louis V. Adrean Head, Research and Public Programs

Victoria Sears Goldman Provenance Researcher

View of Florence 1837. Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848). Oil on canvas; 99.5 x 160.4 cm. Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1961.39. This painting was owned in the mid-19th century by Henry James Sr., father of the novelist Henry James who, in his 1913 memoir, recalled seeing the painting in the family’s Manhattan home.  The painting left the James family’s possession around 1855, when they moved to Europe. Its whereabouts are unknown until sometime in the early to mid-20th century, when it turned up in the window of an antique store in New York City and was purchased by an as yet unidentified collector.  


Provenance, the history of the ownership of a work of art, is not only an account of that work’s whereabouts from the time of its creation until the present day, it can also assist in establishing authenticity and understanding the history of collecting. In a collecting institution such as the Cleveland Museum of Art, provenance research is essential, and it is critical that the museum both pursues the history of its collections as a core activity and disseminates the research findings. Although provenance research is conducted on works of art that could have followed any chain of ownership in any location during any time period, attention is typically focused on works of art that may have been confiscated or lost during the Nazi era. While the European paintings selected for research do contain provenance gaps during the years 1933–1945, it is important to note that such gaps do not necessarily indicate that a work was involved in the systematic plunder by the Nazis of art and other objects.  

In March 2013, the Ingalls Library and Museum Archives launched an exciting pilot project to research the provenances of approximately 60 paintings in the museum’s American and European (1500–1800) collections. The project was generously funded by the Sarah S. and Alexander M. Cutler Director’s Endowment Fund and the CMA became one of only a handful of U.S. museums to have a full-time provenance researcher.


The authors at work in the museum archives

The authors, Louis V. Adrean and Victoria Sears Goldman, at work in the museum archives


Since the inception of the project we have systematically reviewed the extant provenance histories for this group of paintings, correcting errors and conducting extensive additional research in order to fill in gaps in their ownership histories. The results of this research will be published on the museum’s web site at www.clevelandart.org/research/in-curatorial/provenance-research. Due to the nature of provenance research, the provenances on the web site will reflect the current state of research and will be updated as additional research is completed and new discoveries are made.

The Ingalls Library and Museum Archives, one of the largest art research libraries in the United States, is ideally positioned to support this research. Its wide-ranging collection, with over 490,000 volumes, includes monographs, current periodicals, and long runs of ceased periodicals, as well as auction and dealers’ catalogues, microforms, electronic publications and databases, and clipping files. The archives include the administrative records of museum offices and staff members, as well as manuscript collections that document the interactions of the museum with significant figures, such as dealers and collectors, and other institutions within the art world.

In April 2014 the museum received a $50,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to expand this project to a second year to include an additional 48 works of art, this time from the museum’s collection of modern European paintings (1800–1960). Thanks to the grant we have continued to add to the known provenance histories of this group of works. To engage the community with this research, the museum will initiate a wide range of interpretive activities, including: convening a public seminar on provenance research led by well-known provenance experts; creating a mobile tour of the collections based on compelling provenance histories; providing docent training on provenance issues which can be incorporated into gallery tours; presenting a public workshop on resources available here for provenance research; and presenting lectures on provenance research for graduate students in the CMA/CWRU Joint Program in Art History and Museum Studies.

In addition to taking advantage of the vast resources available at the Ingalls Library and Archives, we consult records and documents at both the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, and the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. Archival material at the National Archives is a treasure trove for researching assets looted by the Nazis from victims of the Holocaust. These records are consulted by provenance researchers and by historians, journalists, academic researchers, parties involved in litigation, and others attempting to document Holocaust-era looting. The Archives of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, maintains the records of numerous American collectors, artists, galleries, and dealers, making it an essential resource for tracing works of art that were owned or sold in the United States.   

Our research efforts are aided by the ever-growing collections of archival material that are available in electronic and digital formats and by the generosity of art dealers and galleries who deposit their records in publicly accessible archival repositories and who correspond regarding additional provenance information from their in-house records or their own recollections. Given the rich collections of research materials available at the Ingalls Library and Museum Archives, combined with resources from other institutions, we have been able to amend and piece together the provenances of works in the museum’s collection and then make that information available not only to the Cleveland community, but also to researchers and scholars around the world.  


Cleveland Art, November/December 2014