Behind the Scenes, From the Collections

Unraveling Our Objects’ Histories

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Some of our objects carry thousands of years of history—yet their past seventy-five years or so may be the most difficult to unravel. During the tumultuous years before and during World War II, the Nazi regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural objects on an unprecedented scale. Millions of art objects and other cultural items were unlawfully and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners. While many of these confiscated items were returned after the war, some continue to appear on the legitimate art market and make their way into private and public collections.

As part of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to establish provenance (a fancy word for origins and ownership history) across its collections, for years we have been working on a comprehensive research project focused on our Asian artworks. Our latest development is an updated provenance page on which you can learn about our efforts—and about the major Asian art dealers, collectors, and galleries involved in many of our objects’ histories.

This marks a new innovation in World War II provenance research, in that it focuses not on the artworks themselves but on the way they moved through a network of individuals, businesses, and museums. Some fifty biographies are now available to the public. For example, you can learn about C. T. Loo (1880–1957), a Chinese art dealer from whom the museum acquired nearly four hundred works, including this Tang dynasty mirror in 1935. 

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The biographies are linked to their relevant objects with provenance records and related images. You’ll also find articles detailing auctions that were held in the critical years leading up to and during the World War II era. Together, this information reveals patterns of movement of Asian art that were previously hidden from researchers. And there’s more to come: we are planning to develop a tool that will incorporate the provenance data of partner institutions, helping us paint an even more complete picture of our collections’ past.

Elizabeth Duley

Elizabeth Duley

Elizabeth Duley is head of collections management at the Freer|Sackler.