Current research project

The acquisitions of the Cologne Museum of Arts and Crafts (today: Cologne Museum of Applied Arts) 1933-1940

Current results from provenance research at the MAKK are presented on our website in loose succession in two sections: Under "Object Stories" you will find researched provenance histories of individual artworks and under "The Person" texts on the actors and networks involved.

Since August 2020, the MAKK has been systematically investigating the provenance of its collection holdings. In a first step, by summer 2022, the research project funded by the German Lost Art Foundation will investigate those works of art that entered the collection of what was then called the Museum of Arts and Crafts between 1933 and 1940. Purchases from art dealers, at auctions and from private collectors as well as donations to the museum will be scrutinised. The focus is on the question as to whether the approximately 400 acquisitions documented for this period include objects that were confiscated from their previous owners during the Nazi dictatorship. In such cases, the aim is to find a "just and fair solution" (Washington Declaration) with the rightful owners.

The practical research work begins with a review of all the information on the acquisition of the objects that can be found in the museum. Lists of acquisitions, inventory books and other documents that have been maintained in the museum's object documentation archives provide initial information on former owners. As a rule, it was also noted whether the artworks were purchased or came to the museum through an exchange, as a donation or as a bequest. A particular challenge arises from the fact that the original acquisition lists of the Museum of Arts and Crafts for the years after 1935 were lost in the war. They were kept in the desk of the director Dr. Rudolf Verres and burned in the fire that destroyed most of the museum building in the night of the bombing of 29 June 1943. Furthermore, before the beginning of the war, new acquisitions had not been recorded in the (surviving) inventory books. Due to the gradual return of the holdings, which had been stored elsewhere during the war, it was not until the 1950s that the re-inventory project could be started. Important information for provenance research was lost and must now be reconstructed.

The objects themselves may also contain clues regarding their former owners, for example in the form of stamps, stickers or old inventory numbers attached to the artworks. For this reason, the research project will closely examine all works and photographically document the findings on the history of origin. The objects examined in the current project mainly include faiences, porcelain, drinking glasses and furniture, and also individual ivory carvings, paintings, pieces of jewellery and textiles.

In the period under investigation, the Museum of Arts and Crafts acquired objects from Cologne-based dealers such as Kunsthaus Lempertz, Josef Schrader, Viktor Exinger or Kunstsalon Hermann Sonnthal, and also from supra-regional art dealers. Among others, the museum purchased pieces from Rudolph Lepke’s Kunst-Auctions-Haus, Gustav Cramer und E. Kahlert & Sohn in Berlin, from Auktionshaus Heinrich Hahn in Frankfurt am Main and from Julius Böhler in Munich. Therefore, the research into the origin of objects in the collection has significance beyond the reach of Cologne.

On the basis of the information compiled on the acquisitions, we can now begin in-depth research: In the museum, only brief facts on new acquisitions were usually recorded. In suspected cases, further research is needed to trace the exact circumstances of, and detailed information on, the acquisition, the history of the objects' origins and the situation of their last previous owners. In addition, former owners, who were forced to give up their possessions under pressure of persecution before the objects reached the Museum of Arts and Crafts, should also be identified, if possible. This is indispensable, especially in the case of acquisitions from art dealers. The search for clues leads via literature research and databases to historical address books, sales catalogues and regional and national estates and archives.

Documentation and Transparency

During the redesign of the exhibitions of the historical collections, suspicions arose with regard to problematic provenances in the MAKK collection. This was the reason why the current research project (2020-2022) was started: The aim is to be able to incorporate the resulting insights into the further planning of exhibitions. The history of the objects' origins should also be made transparent to future visitors.

The results of the provenance research are documented in the museum's database. In time for the start of the research project, the MAKK put a special module for recording provenance information into operation in order to register all findings on the history of the objects according to the current standards of provenance research. The collected data can be compiled with the help of the database, sorted according to various criteria, such as purchases from a specific art dealer, and used for further research. This is particularly important for those objects for which no comprehensive and credible provenance can be substantiated at the present time.

Another task of provenance research is to make the results publicly accessible. At the end of the project at the MAKK, a conference is planned at which the findings will be presented and placed in the context of current research. In addition, the MAKK will, in future, publish the results of provenance research on the objects in its collection in an online collection. The MAKK will also provide regular information on the status of provenance research in the museum on its website.

In the case of objects proven to have been confiscated from former owners under persecution, it is the museum's responsibility to find the rightful owners and to work with them to find a just and fair solution. In some cases, the provenance information will have to remain temporarily incomplete or ongoing due to the sources available at the time and the progress of research. If the suspicion that a piece was confiscated by the Nazis cannot be ruled out, these objects should be documented in the Lost Art database of the German Lost Art Foundation and made accessible for future research.