Guidelines to Collecting and Provenance
How Do the Collections Grow?
The Harvard Art Museums acquire new objects by purchase, gift, and bequest. The text that follows describes how curators think about the objects being considered for acquisition. It is excerpted from a larger document outlining established guidelines and procedures, which were revised and adopted in 2022.
Should you be considering offering a gift of artwork, please be aware that our primary role as a museum within a teaching institution, our limited gallery and storage space, and the added demands that every object places on our budget and staff all require that we be very selective in our new acquisitions. Offers will be considered by curatorial specialists to determine how they might be used to further our mission. Offers of gifts of art should be directed to:
Diane Heath Beever Curator of the Collection, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
Curator of the Collection, Division of European and American Art
Curator of the Collection, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art
The museums seek to acquire art that is germane to the purpose of teaching and research and that promotes critical looking and thinking for students, faculty, and the public. Acquisitions should support the collecting goals of the museums and should not risk the reputation and good name of Harvard University. The museums are under no obligation to accept gifts or bequests offered to the collections. The following criteria govern the acquisition of works of art for the collections, whether made by purchase, gift, bequest, exchange, transfer, or any other means.
The museums will undertake due diligence to establish the legal status of an object under consideration for acquisition, making every reasonable effort to investigate, substantiate, or clarify the provenance of the work of art. The museums will not acquire a work of art if there is reasonable cause to believe that it may have been stolen, illegally excavated or removed from a monument, site, or shipwreck contrary to local law, or otherwise acquired in or exported from its country of origin or any intermediate country in violation of that country’s laws or any international treaties. The museums require documentation that the work of art left its probable country of modern discovery by November 17, 1970, the date when the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was signed.
The museums will carefully assess the significance of any gaps in the ownership history of a work of art, applying extra scrutiny when warranted by special circumstances, such as wartime or periods of political upheaval. When considering for acquisition works of art that may have been in Axis-occupied territory between 1933 and 1945, curators will thoroughly research and present information regarding the possibility that the work of art was confiscated, sold under duress, looted, lost, or restituted. The museums will not knowingly acquire works of art lost, looted, or sold under duress during the Nazi era. The museums respect the rights of owners and heirs to pursue restitution. The museums intend to be transparent about their holdings and to make publicly known works of art with gaps in their provenance, whether newly acquired or already in the collections.
If the museums find in their possession a work of art that can be shown to have been acquired, excavated, or exported in violation of the terms described above, then the museums will proceed in good faith to determine what steps might be taken to preserve the interests of all concerned parties. These steps may, in the appropriate circumstances, include a return of the work of art to its country of origin or the restitution of a work of art to an owner, provided such a return or restitution is consistent with the President and Fellows of Harvard College’s legal and fiduciary duties. Furthermore, if a public museum or collection or agency of a foreign country seeks its return and demonstrates that it is a part of that country’s national patrimony, the university will cooperate with that country to determine the appropriate disposition. A framework for consideration of claims has been established by Harvard University.
What is Provenance?
“Provenance” is a chronology of the ownership of a work of art, tracing it from the hand of the artist or maker to its present location and owner. Knowing the provenance can help determine the authenticity of a work, establish the historical importance of a work by suggesting other artists who might have seen and been influenced by it, and determine the legitimacy of current ownership.
Provenance information for works of art can vary widely in completeness and accuracy. Sources for provenance information include exhibition catalogues, catalogues raisonné, and correspondence with other scholars. Information can also be gleaned from labels and other markings on the object itself, which can point to its movement over time. However, even after extensive research, it is not unusual for long periods in the history of a centuries-old object to remain unaccounted for.
Provenance research on works in our historical collections is an ongoing process at the Harvard Art Museums. Beyond the extensive research we conduct when considering acquiring a new object, we are committed to establishing provenance for all objects in our care. Priority is given to major works, works being published or in an exhibition, and any recent or new acquisitions. Along with researching our own records, we contact dealers, collectors, scholars, curators, and auction houses, visit national and international archives, and consult with recognized experts in this field. As provenance information is added to our database, it will also appear in object records in our online collections. Users should be aware, however, that though these details have been reviewed by curatorial staff, they may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. If you’d like to know more about an object’s provenance, please contact the curatorial division that is responsible for the object. An email address is listed at the bottom of each online object record.
How to Read Provenance Descriptions
The provenance for works of art in the Harvard Art Museums collections is listed in chronological order, beginning with the earliest known owner. Beginning and end dates of ownership, if known, are enclosed in parentheses. The names and locations of dealers, auction houses, or agents are in brackets to distinguish them from private owners. The method of transfer from one owner to another (for example, a sale, gift, or inheritance) follows. A semicolon between two owners indicates that the work passed directly between them; a period is used when direct transfer did not occur or is not known to have occurred. In some cases, provenance listings may include standard references. Notes are used to document or clarify information.
The Harvard Art Museums participate in the Object Registry, sponsored by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). The site comprises two databases: the Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art, which provides information on acquisitions of a selection of works of archaeological and ancient art by AAMD member museums; and the Registry of Resolution of Claims for Nazi-Era Cultural Assets, which offers information on the resolution of formal claims made to AAMD member museums regarding works of art believed to have been stolen by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.
Examples of Ongoing Provenance Research Efforts at the Harvard Art Museums
World War II–Era Transactions
It has long been known that hundreds of thousands of works of art were stolen or looted or otherwise illicitly changed hands in occupied Europe during World War II. However, the documents that would allow us to trace some of these works have become available only in recent decades. In 1998, member institutions of the AAMD, including the Harvard Art Museums, committed themselves to examining the provenance of works in their collections to determine whether they may have been subject to looting or other improper transactions.
In theory, any work that was made in or before 1945, that was acquired in or after 1933, and that might have been in areas of Europe occupied by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 could have been looted. Thousands of works of art in our collections fall into this category. Priority for in-depth research has been given to works whose provenance includes names of collectors, dealers, and others associated with looted or otherwise illicitly transferred works.
Asian and Mediterranean Antiquities
The Asian and Mediterranean collection spans more than 7,000 years, from Neolithic times to the present. It comprises 60,000 works, originating in East Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Western Asia, and North Africa as well as Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle East. A large portion of the objects were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Harvard alumni, faculty, and the founders of the Fogg Museum. Other objects were acquired from Harvard-sponsored and legally sanctioned archaeological excavations.
Native American Art
The Harvard Art Museums have acquired only a small number of traditional works made in Native American communities. Historically, these works have been collected at Harvard by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Works in the Harvard Art Museums collections have been assessed to determine whether they fall under the purview of the Native American Graves Repatriation Act or if they should be repatriated for other reasons.
The Harvard Art Museums currently hold two objects made in the Kingdom of Benin; many others are in the collection of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. We acknowledge the violence and trauma of the seizure of these works by British forces in 1897, and we understand how the presence of this cultural material in western museums is experienced as continued injustice by descendant communities. Plans for a new museum in Nigeria dedicated to the legacy of Benin City and to the restoration of the Benin Bronzes are underway. Harvard is part of the Digital Benin project and is engaged in conversations with other institutions on issues relevant to these works.