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VMFA And Provenance Research

VMFA conducts research on all works of art in its collection. An important part of that research is the effort to establish the complete provenance of each object in the museum collection. The objective of provenance research is to trace the ownership history and location of an object, ideally from its creation to the present.


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Ashley Holdsworth
Curatorial Department

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Museums have traditionally conducted provenance research as part of the overall curatorial research of a collection. However, within the last few decades, there has been an increased focus on the provenance of museum objects. As such, provenance has evolved into an individual category of importance for museums.

Provenance research supports a museum’s mandate to ensure that all collections in its custody are lawfully held and rightfully owned. Whether an object has been in a museum’s permanent collection for many years, or is being considered for acquisition, incoming loan, or outgoing loan, its documented history of ownership can be a fundamental factor in making ethical decisions that abide by museum standards.

Within the last two decades, VMFA has increased efforts to ascertain the complete provenance for artworks that fall within a category relating to the “Nazi era” period: 1933 – 1945. In accordance with guidelines issued by the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), provenance research at VMFA is focused on paintings, sculpture, works on paper and other objects that were created before 1946 and that might have changed hands in Europe between 1933 and 1945.

VMFA also follows AAM and AAMD guidelines and standards regarding museums and the provenance of archaeological materials and ancient art. Please see the American Association of Museum’s website: Guidelines on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art and the American Alliance of Museums website: Standards Regarding Archaeological Material and Ancient Art.


Restitutions and Repatriations

VMFA has restituted three works from its collection to their rightful owners after conclusively determining that the works were misappropriated by the Nazis in World War II.  

VMFA Trustees Vote to Return French Painting Believed to have been Stolen by Nazis in 1944 (2004) 

VMFA to Return Painting Looted by Nazis to Descendant of Rightful Polish Owners (2005) 

VMFA Board of Trustees Votes to Return Nazi-Looted Painting (2018)

VMFA has repatriated three objects to the Lúkaaxh.ádi clan of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska, in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.  

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Returns Headdress to Native Tribe (2011) 

Repatriation of X’átgu K’udás’ (Mudshark Shirt) & Kéet Gooshí (Killerwhale Fin) to the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (2015 & 2018) 

VMFA has repatriated 44 works of ancient art to Italy, Egypt and Türkiye. For more information, see The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Announces Repatriation of Ancient Works of Art to Their Countries of Origin (2023) 

For the provenance, publication, and exhibition history of these works see Summary of Provenance Information.  


World War II Era Provenance Research

Provenance research is challenging and complex work, particularly for objects possibly misappropriated during the Nazi era.  Among other factors, the upheavals of World War II, the inaccessibility of many archives during the Cold War, destruction from natural disasters, and loss of information through the passage of time have added to the complexity of determining an absolutely complete provenance for an object. Sometimes provenance records will reflect a past owner’s wish for anonymity. Other times, the attribution of an artwork may change over time, creating confusion in tracking documentation. Furthermore, many dealers and auction houses are no longer in business and their records may have been lost or destroyed. Despite such challenges, there is an increasing availability of resources and an improved accessibility to previously inaccessible records and archives. These changes reflect a continuing awareness and support of Nazi era provenance research.

Background – Nazi era (1933 – 1945)

The National Socialist German Worker’s (Nazi) Party was founded in 1919 and headed by Adolf Hitler from 1921. The term “Nazi era” refers to the period of 1933-1945 when the Nazi party was in power in Germany. From 1933 until the end of World War II in 1945, the Nazi regime conducted one of the largest confiscations of art and cultural property known in history. The Third Reich enacted an elaborate and premeditated system of theft, confiscation, coercion, and destruction, with millions of objects being unlawfully and forcibly taken from rightful owners.

After World War II, great efforts were made by the Allied forces and other governments to return objects to their countries of origin and to original owners. In particular, a group of men and women from thirteen nations comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) section of the Allied armies during World War II. Known as the “Monuments Men”, this group not only helped to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of war, many remained in Europe for up to six years after the war to oversee the restitution of stolen works of art. In fact, many members of the American museum community played leading roles in the success of this post-war restitution effort, including both men and women. Although large amounts of artwork were restituted, some works entered the art market and eventually found their way into various collections in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere, often with lost, obscured, or false provenance information.  VMFA remains united with the museum community in ongoing efforts to identify any artworks for which restitution was never made.


VMFA’s Ongoing Role

VMFA remains focused in research of paintings, sculpture, works on paper and other objects in its collection created before 1946 and that might have changed hands in Europe between 1933 and 1945, identifying gaps in the provenance history.

In an effort to make information on such objects in its collection more publicly accessible, VMFA is currently updating its provenance data in order to share and continually update this information on its website. As this work progresses, the museum welcomes and encourages the sharing of any information that might further clarify the provenance of objects in its collection.

VMFA is a participating museum with the American Alliance of Museum (AAM) Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP), which was designed and is currently managed by AAM on behalf of the U.S. museum community. NEPIP provides a central searchable registry of objects in U.S. museum collections that were created before 1946 and that possibly changed hands in Continental Europe during the Nazi era (1933-1945): see Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal.

VMFA also participates with the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) Object Registry: AAMD Object Registry which lists new acquisitions of archaeological material and works of ancient art and tracks resolutions of claims for Nazi-era cultural assets.

Through these efforts, VMFA seeks to fulfill its mandate of responsible stewardship of its collections. The museum welcomes and encourages the sharing of any information that might further clarify the provenance of objects in its collection.

Due to the challenging nature of provenance research, it is an ongoing and continuous endeavor, and requires a significant commitment of staff time and other resources. One staff member at VMFA coordinates this research, working with curators and other museum staff as well as contacts worldwide as each case requires.

VMFA welcomes any information that might help clarify the provenance history of artworks in its collection. For inquiries and information, please contact the museum at the following email address: Please send written inquiries to: Provenance Research Project, VMFA, c/o Karen Daly, Registrar for Exhibitions & Coordinator of Provenance Research, 200 N. Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23220-4007.

Some object records are not complete and do not reflect VMFA’s full and current knowledge. VMFA makes routine updates as records are reviewed and enhanced.

Suggested Resources for Provenance Research in Museum Collections


Selected Bibliography

Kenneth D. Alford. The Spoils of World War II: The American Military’s Role in the Stealing of Europe’s Treasures. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1994.

Greg Bradsher , compiled by. Holocaust-Era Assets: A Finding Aid to Records at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1999.

Karen Daly. “Provenance Research in Museum Collections.” Museum Registration Methods 5th EditionRebecca A. Buck and Jean Allman Gilmore (Eds.). Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 2010.

Robert M. Edsel. Forewords by Lynn H. Nicholas and Edmund P. Pillsbury.Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis stole Europe’s Great Art: America and Her Allies recovered It. Dallas: Laurel Publishing,  2006.

Robert M. Edsel, with Bret Witter. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. New York: Center Street, 2009.

Hector Feliciano. The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art., New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Thomas Carr Howe Jr. Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1946.

Michael J. Kurtz. Nazi Contraband: American Policy on the Return of European Cultural Treasures, 1945-1955. Garland, New York, 1985.

Sophie Lillie. Was Einmal War: Handbuch der einteigneten Kunstsammlungen Wiens, Czernin, Vienna, 2003.

Lynn H. Nicholas. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War,  New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Jonathan Petropoulos. Art as Politics in the Third Reich. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Jonathan Petropoulos, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2000.

Elizabeth Simpson, ed. The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath. The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York, 1997.

Helen J. Wechsler, Teri Coate-Saal, and John Lukavic, compilers. Museum Policy and Procedures for Nazi-Era Issues, American Association of Museums, 2001.

Nancy H. Yeide, Konstantin Akinsha, and Amy L. Walsh. The AAM Guide to Provenance Research. American Association of Museums, Washington, DC, 2001.

Nancy H. Yeide, Intro. Vitalizing Memory: International Perspectives on Provenance Research. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2005.

Nancy H. Yeide,  Robert M. Edsel (Foreword by).Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection. Dallas: Laurel Publishing, LLC, 2009.

Recommended Websites

Art Loss Register

American Alliance of Museums

Association of Art Museum Directors

Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property

Claims Resolution Tribunal

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe (ECLA)

Federal Bureau of Investigation National Stolen Art File

The Frick Art Reference Library

Getty Research Institute Provenance Index Databases   

Holocaust-Era Assets: Records & Research at the National Archives & Records Administration

ICOM: Fighting the illicit traffic in cultural property

International Foundation for Art Research

The Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation

Memorial de la Shoah, Musee Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine

Monuments Men Foundation

Musées Nationaux Recupération

Museum Security Network

Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal

New York State Holocaust Claims Office

Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the US

Smithsonian Provenance in the World War II Era

UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970

United Nations International Committee on Museum (ICOM) Spoliation of Jewish Property

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

U.S. Department of State: International Cultural Property Protection

World Jewish Congress