What is provenance research and what principles is it based on?

The aim of provenance research is to trace the ownership history of works of art, i.e. the transfers of ownership that have taken place from their creation to their arrival in the Museum’s collection.

This type of investigation has become a fundamental part of museum work, particularly with regard to works that entered the collection after 1933 and were created before 1945, objects that may have been looted by the Nazi regime.

Provenance research is based on the eleven Principles of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, which Switzerland signed in 1998, confirming its commitment to finding a fair, equitable solution for the descendants of art owners whose works were appropriated by the Nazis.

The Federal Office of Culture (FOC) provides financial support for specific research projects with a biannual grant awarded on the basis of a competition. As a museum supported by the Confederation, provenance research is an integral part of the service contract signed with the FOC.
The Contact Bureau on Looted Art is the federal body which deals with all matters relating to art confiscated by the Nazis.

In addition to this, in spring 2020 the association Schweizerischer Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung/Association Suisse de Recherche en Provenence was set up with the aim of bringing together researchers working in the field of provenance research in museums, archives, libraries, universities and the art market, giving them the opportunity to exchange information and share the results of their work.

Provenance Research at MASI and current projects

MASI too acknowledges that museums have the moral responsibility to be vigilant and actively participate in identifying assets stolen by the Nazi regime or that were sold under duress.

The museum also feels it has the responsibility to ensure the transparency of its collections’ history.

The collections managed by MASI consist mostly of works of local provenance, and which have not transited on the national or international market. There is a group of works that entered the collection after 1933 and were created before 1945 that may have transited in markets in which the presence of looted goods cannot be excluded.

In this context, research has been initiated on two donations: the Lenggenhager-Tschannen donation (31 works) given to the Republic and Canton of Ticino in 1960 and the Milich-Fassbind donation (61 works) given to the City of Lugano in 1965.

Within MASI, the Collection Management Department is in charge of coordinating provenance research. After conducting preliminary research in its own archives and those of the City and Canton, the team will be supported by external researchers specialized in doing research in national and international archives.