The Art Gallery of South Australia undertakes ongoing research to establish the history of ownership, or provenance, of works of art in its collection. This research helps to identify the social, historical and economic context in which a work of art was created and collected, as well the work’s authenticity.
Ideally, every time a work of art changes ownership, the information relating to the change (that is, new owner, sale price, new location etc.) would be recorded and would remain linked to the work; however, for many reasons this does not always occur, and earlier information is not always available or recoverable (particularly for works of art pre-dating the nineteenth century and since the advent of the modern art market). Records of sale and other historical documents, such as inventories, frequently do not survive or they lack sufficient descriptive detail. Many private collectors buy and sell works anonymously through third parties, such as dealers or auction houses, which may or may not disclose the owner’s identity. If a dealer or auction house no longer operates, records, if not lost or destroyed, may only be partially preserved. All these factors contribute to the gaps that may occur in a work of art’s provenance.
It is important to note that an incomplete provenance does not indicate that a work was looted or stolen, only that its complete ownership history cannot be reconstructed today.
The period of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945 represents a particularly problematic area for provenance research of works of art in Europe. During this time of great turmoil and upheaval, Jewish collections were exposed to systematic looting and confiscation or sale under duress. In conjunction with national and international art institutions, the Art Gallery of South Australia is committed to assisting in the identification of objects unlawfully appropriated in Germany during this period. The Gallery seeks to clarify the provenance of works of art acquired after 1932 and created before 1945 that were or could have been in Europe at that time.
To this end, the Gallery is working on making information on the provenance of the Gallery’s collection more widely available. This is an ongoing project and a list of works will be uploaded to the website soon. The Art Gallery welcomes further information on the provenance of works in its collection.
The Asian Art Department is researching the provenance of works from Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East in the collection that are lacking complete documentation. The works cover a wide range of media, but at this stage include wood and stone sculpture as well as paintings. The provenance research specifically focuses on works of art whose transit from the location of their production into foreign collections, before acquisition by the Gallery, is undocumented. This is especially important for works that are believed to have left their country of origin during the last three decades of the twentieth century. The Art Gallery’s policy has been to avoid the acquisition of major early historical works of art from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia and south India due to widespread uncertainty over the legitimacy of the provenance of art objects from those regions.
This is an ongoing project and a list of works will be uploaded to the website soon. The Art Gallery welcomes further information on the provenance of works in the collection.