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Tracking Down the Provenance of Old Masters: The Research in a Few Basic Steps

May, 2023


Provenance research has long had a somewhat dull image. It conjures up images of kilometers of box files and card index systems. Of course, there will be days on which a researcher struggles through piles of old papers without finding a single relevant piece of data. More often, however, provenance research feels, as is often said, like detective work. It involves hunting for clues and traces, pulling a thread to see where it leads. When these efforts yield results, worlds may open up before your eyes. You find yourself transported into the lives of figures from the past, reading their letters, exploring their houses, seeing what they saw. Take the research on paintings from the collection of Joseph Henri Gosschalk (1875–1952), conducted a few years ago for the Dutch Restitutions Committee (RC). Gosschalk was a Dutch artist, collector, and dealer from a Jewish background. He collected both Old Masters and modern art and was active in The Hague’s art scene. A few clicks on Delpher, a search engine for Dutch historical newspapers, takes you to the home of this “Hague Bohemian”, who owned paintings by Van Beijeren, Bruegel, Van Goyen, Grimmer, De Momper, Potter, Saftleven, and Saverij. Gosschalk showed his collection to whoever wanted to see it and lent or donated works to numerous museums. Being of Jewish descent, Gosschalk found himself in peril in the Second World War. He was interned in Barneveld in February 1943. In the same year, in September 1943, the occupying forces transported those held at Barneveld to Westerbork transit camp. There, Gosschalk made many drawings of the camp and its surroundings. A fellow inmate and artist wrote after the war:

“The pictures he was able to capture from the bleakness and desolation of that ghastly, barren land are among the most beautiful in his oeuvre (…)”

Joseph Henri Gosschalk (1875–1952), Entrance to Kamp Westerbork, 1943Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Joseph Henri Gosschalk (1875–1952), Entrance to Kamp Westerbork, 1943
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Provenance research now has the wind in its sails. Its value has been increasingly recognized over the past few decades, both within and beyond the art history world. Once a modest part of art history, important mainly for issues of attribution and authenticity, today we find universities establishing chairs in this discipline. That provenance research has developed into a research field in its own right has to do with recent claims by families whose property was stolen by the Nazis. The past 25 years have seen a growing social awareness of these issues. The museum world too has come to appreciate the importance of verifying the provenance of new acquisitions – and of works that have long been part of the collection. This provenance research is an ethical duty, enshrined in several national and international professional codes and guidelines, such as the Dutch Code of Ethics for Museums and the ICOM Code of Ethics. Art acquisition funds such as the Rembrandt Society also attach great importance to provenance research. In the Netherlands, museums have subjected their collections to close scrutiny in the Museum Acquisitions projects. The Netherlands currently has several institutions dedicated to provenance research on cultural goods. Key players include the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD), and the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE). In addition, several museums, such as the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, also regard provenance research as one of their core responsibilities.

American Troops Find Loot Hidden in Church, Germany, 24 April 1945National Archives and Records Administration, Washington

American Troops Find Loot Hidden in Church, Germany, 24 April 1945
National Archives and Records Administration, Washington

The discipline is expanding, now embracing research on objects from former colonies and on human remains – it is a vibrant field. But how exactly should you go to work, starting out as a provenance researcher? This article does not claim to provide an exhaustive guide, but provides some basic steps and sources for provenance research on works by Old Masters that were plundered under the Nazi occupation. New researchers should note that while certain avenues can be suggested, much will depend on the individual’s creativity and detective work. Those who would like to read a more comprehensive handbook have several options. One book, published in 2001 but still extremely useful, is the AAM Guide to Provenance Research by Nancy Yeide et al. Also informative is the more recent publication edited by Arthur Tompkins, Provenance Research Today: Principles, Practice, Problems (2021). In the Netherlands, the RCE is to publish its own research guide in the autumn of 2023. For the methodology of provenance research on objects from former colonies, the NIOD, the National Museum of World Cultures, and the Rijksmuseum published the report Clues, Research into provenance history and significance of cultural objects and collections acquired in colonial situations. The University of Amsterdam is launching a postgraduate course on Restitution Studies next year, in which provenance research will be a key component.

Object research

Provenance research starts with the artwork itself. The physical object is a primary source that can provide a wealth of data. The front and back of the artwork, as well as its frame, must therefore be minutely examined and photographed. The backs of Old Master paintings and drawings often provide a long history in the form of notes, numbers, labels, stamps, seals, or other distinguishing marks. Marks of this nature can lead to the “missing link” in a chain of owners. They may refer to auctions where the work was sold or a collector who had borrowed it for an exhibition. Inscriptions and labels sometimes contain references to the Second World War. For instance, the back of the painting Wooded Pool with Salmacis and Hermaphroditus by Moyses van Wttenbroeck, once owned by Gosschalk, is inscribed with the number 2780. This is known as a “Linz number”, which refers to the “Führer Museum” that Adolf Hitler had planned to establish in his home town of Linz.

For that prospective museum (which never materialized), Hitler had a huge collection of paintings assembled, mainly Old Masters, through purchases and confiscations. Information on the works from this collection can be found in the Database on the Sonderauftrag Linz ( There are several other numbers on the back of Van Wttenbroeck’s painting, which were applied by the post-war recovery and reparations authorities. For instance, the American “Monuments Men” gave it the number 4890 at the Central Collecting Point in Munich. Some time after the work was returned to the Netherlands, it was given another number, 2532, by Dutch officials.

By linking the markings on the back of a work to information from other sources, the researcher can interpret the inscriptions and labels. Useful databases include the RKD’s Labels on Art and Les Marques de Collections de Dessins & d’Estampes by Frits Lugt. Despite these resources, the meaning of a particular scribble or half-torn label on the back of a painting often remains a mystery. In addition, turning the painting over may lead to disappointment. Not infrequently, traces of the work’s provenance have been erased or rendered invisible by renewal of the stretcher, a new frame, or other interventions. When examining the back, it is important that the markings are not inspected just once, but compared with the most recent findings at a later stage of the research.

Internal sources

Just as important as looking at the object itself is studying the museum’s internal sources. The institution’s own resources often contain more provenance information than is apparent from its digital collection system. This includes data that can be derived from inventory cards, acquisition registers, object files, annual reports, loan agreements, exhibition overviews, and restoration reports. Also important is correspondence. Museum staff were often in close contact with collectors and art dealers and interesting correspondence may have survived. A postcard Gosschalk wrote to a foster daughter from Theresienstadt concentration camp after the war provides an indication of that network:

“I was still in good health in Westerbork and I left my best drawings there, asking the bath attendant (I can’t recall his name) to put them in a safe place. I also asked Hans van de Waal to take care of them, so he will be able to provide information, and Dientje you will be able to get his address from Dr. Knuttel or Dr. Bloch. The bath attendant was friends with Dr. Friedländer, so you could also get his address there. Bloch can ask Dr. F.”

Joseph Henri Gosschalk (1875–1952), Postcard sent from TheresienstadtArchival records of Jos Gosschalk, RKD - Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague

Joseph Henri Gosschalk (1875–1952), Postcard sent from Theresienstadt
Archival records of Jos Gosschalk, RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague

In this postcard, Gosschalk is referring to several art historians. Research in the archives of these individuals can help produce a better picture of Gosschalk’s work and personal circumstances, or it may even be possible to find information about an artwork he had in his possession.

External sources

Once you have examined every aspect of the painting and gone through the internal museum sources, you are ready for the next step: consulting the multitude of external sources. One obvious research method is to consult art-historical literature and sources. These could include oeuvre catalogues, articles on the relevant artist, and documentation from specialist institutions, such as the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague, the Rubenianum in Antwerp, and the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (ZKG) in Munich.

One of the pitfalls of which researchers must be mindful is that multiple versions of a particular image may exist. Earlier researchers may have confused the provenance details of these versions. The attribution and titles of works may also have changed. Furthermore, the painting itself may have been altered, for instance by reduction in size, overpainting, or the addition of a signature. In 2002, a portrait by an anonymous artist was returned to Gosschalk’s heirs. Gosschalk had been forced to relinquish this work in 1942 to the German looting bank Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co., based in Sarphatistraat, Amsterdam. At the time, the painting was described as a portrait of Don Luis de Requessens y Zuñiga. Years later, it was decided that the subject was Philips van Croy, Duke of Aarschot. Today, the work is believed to be a portrait of Count Peter Ernst I of Mansveld. Provenance researchers have to take all such possible changes into account.

Portrait of Count Peter Ernst I of Mansveld (1517-1604), ca. 1550–1600Noordbrabants Museum, Den Bosch. J.H. Gosschalk's heirs donated this painting to the museum in 2020, after it had been returned to them on the advice of the Restitutions Committee.

Portrait of Count Peter Ernst I of Mansveld (1517-1604), ca. 1550–1600
Noordbrabants Museum, Den Bosch. J.H. Gosschalk’s heirs donated this painting to the museum in 2020, after it had been returned to them on the advice of the Restitutions Committee.

In the initial stages of provenance research, all kinds of relevant data will generally emerge, such as the names of collectors, art dealers and auction houses. To find out more about these individuals and institutions, researchers have numerous specialized institutions and websites at their disposal. For instance, the CBG Center for Family History can often answer queries about people who lived in the Netherlands. The RKD is among the resources that can be used to track down any bequeathed archives of private individuals, traders, and auction houses. Sometimes it may even be possible to find relatives of former owners of artworks – who may in turn have relevant stories, records, or photographs to contribute.

The research can also draw on a flood of recent studies on Nazi looting and a proliferating number of specialist websites. To find out more about Dutch-born victims of the Nazi regime, for example, the website Joods Monument is indispensable. Websites with information on cultural objects that were looted or displaced include,,, and For works of art that were brought back from Germany to the Netherlands after the war and are now under the management of the Dutch government, reference can be made to the website Highly informative archives include the National Archives in The Hague and the NIOD in Amsterdam. The National Archives include the archives of the Netherlands Art Property Foundation (SNK). The SNK was in charge of recovering artworks that had been taken to Germany and returning them to their owners or the owners’ surviving relatives.

Problems and challenges

If all goes well, the researcher ends up with an unbroken chain of provenance data for the period from 1933 to the present day. From this can be derived a clear overview of the names of successive owners, including dates of ownership, methods of transfer, and locations where the work was kept. Unfortunately, this ideal result will often be hard to achieve. For many works, gaps in provenance history remain – both during and after the Nazi Era. This is often because of missing documentation. Archive material may have been concealed, damaged, cleaned up, or even completely destroyed. Victims of the persecution of the Jews were not only deprived of their art in a large-scale looting operation, but they were also deprived of the means to find evidence with which their families could have substantiated post-war art claims. These victims included Gosschalk, who was unable to find out much about his art collection after the war. On 5 July 1946, he wrote as follows to the Netherlands Art Property Foundation:

“As I have previously informed you, I lost most of my art collection during the occupation and I am further impeded by the fact that all the data have also disappeared and my memory is failing me badly. / My departure from The Hague was so rushed that I had no time to make notes, or even to remember whether paintings etc. went to “Bewaarders” [custodians], to Barneveld (where they also disappeared), to Lippmann, or were left in my house and removed at some later point in time.”

It is important to stress that provenance research, like art history research in general, is never finished. New data can always emerge that may complement or correct previous provenance results or cast them in a different light. In addition, museums will require provenance research to be conducted on all intended new acquisitions.

The relatives of the artworks’ original owners may find it a very meaningful experience to read what a provenance researcher has found out. For example, a relative of Gosschalk said in a documentary of the Restitutions Committee:

“As you search for this kind of very matter-of-fact information, you automatically come to know more and more about a man whose fate deeply affects you, especially as you also see his efforts to put the fragments shattered by the war back together at the end of his life. … Were it not for the painting or the tracking down of paintings of this kind, we wouldn’t have immersed ourselves in his life and got to know him so well.”

Tracing the provenance of a painting yields much more information than dry facts about a single artwork. It also illuminates family histories, networks of collectors, movements in the art market, the political and ideological dimensions of culture, and so on. That makes it intriguing. Moreover, every museum has a moral and social duty to screen its own collection. Provenance research should acquire the status – even more than it has at present – of a permanent museum practice.

Jona Mooren is employed at the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE). She previously worked at the Expert Centre Restitution at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. Eelke Muller is a researcher at the Expert Centre Restitution at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies. Mooren and Muller both previously worked for the Restitutions Committee and the Dutch Museum Associations for the ‘Museum Acquisitions’-projects. They have published several books and articles on Nazi looted art and on objects acquired in colonial situations.

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