How The Research into the Provenance Of Works Is A Major Challenge Of Mutual Interest

How The Research into the Provenance Of Works Is A Major Challenge Of Mutual Interest

Anne Heilbronn, Sotheby's Vice-President and Director of the Books and Manuscripts Department (France), discusses a new initiative to sponsor focused research at the Musée du Louvre, on objects acquired between 1933 and 1945.

Anne Heilbronn, Sotheby's Vice-President and Director of the Books and Manuscripts Department (France), discusses a new initiative to sponsor focused research at the Musée du Louvre, on objects acquired between 1933 and 1945.


In recent times, we have seen numerous headlines across global media relating to recovery and re-homing despoiled property. And playing a key role in these efforts, Sotheby’s has been actively supporting the Musée du Louvre's action plan to ramp up research into the provenance of objects acquired between 1933 and 1945.

Following the Journées Internationales du Film sur l’Art (JIFA, or International Art Film Days) focusing on the theme of the art market under the Nazi Occupation, which was held in late January, a day-long seminar took place on February 2 also at the Louvre, to focus on the latest news in provenance research. Anne Heilbronn, Vice-President and Director of the Books and Manuscripts Department of Sotheby’s France, talks about the lecture she gave at the event.

Why was it important for you to participate in this conference?

The subject of despoiled property is important for us and all the stakeholders of the art market. In the last few years, people have gained an increased awareness of those challenges. The creation of this research department at the Louvre in 2019 was a strong signal, as was the establishment of a specific ministerial commission that same year. We are naturally involved in this movement, and we are contributing to it through our research efforts and by supporting the Louvre in its work. Participating in this seminar was meaningful to me in a personal way. I assisted Hector Feliciano a great deal in the research that went into his founding work, Le Musée disparu, in 1995. My friendship with Elizabeth Royer, who has done a great deal of work in this field, also came into play; as did my relations with Emmanuelle Polack, whom I thank for the organisation of this event. My brother is also the Vice-President of the Mémorial de la Shoah…

But this is not a new movement for Sotheby’s…

No, it isn’t. We have been taking this approach for many years. Sotheby’s was the first auction house to create a department for the research of provenances. The initiative originated with Lucian Simmons. It was 1997, one year before the U.S. government’s compensation settlements for despoiled properties, and well before restitution laws and policies on such matters ever came about.

Proust. Du côté de chez Swann. 1913. First edition, one of five copies on Japanese paper, n° 1. Red Morocco leather. Sold: € 601,500

You spoke not only as co-lecturer with Aurélie Vandevoorde, head of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department of Sotheby’s France; but also in your capacity as Director of the Books and Manuscripts Department, which reinforced the point that its not only the restitution of fine arts being debated now.

It’s true, the despoilment of libraries is never discussed. We need to get away from solely focusing on paintings and open the discussion on other fields. Despoilment issues encompass furniture, tapestries, musical instruments and of course books. The difficulty of tracing them is, in my opinion, one of the reasons that they are not discussed.

In what way is it more difficult to trace the provenance of a manuscript or book than a painting?

Unlike a book, a work of art is by definition unique. That means it is more easily identifiable than a book, and a manuscript is, too. Tracing a specific book requires providing libraries with a great deal of precise information, supported by photographs and/or the description of the binding, and perhaps an ex-libris or an autographed envoi or dedication; but these only rarely appear in inventory lists. The information to which we most often have access – such as the title, publishing date, and at best a description of the binding as “red Morocco leather.” or “gilded edges” – does not enable us to definitively recognize the copy in question. That is why book restitution very rarely occurs. I have never witnessed one in the twenty-five years that I have been with Sotheby’s! But we keep hope alive. That brings to mind the legendary first edition of Du côté de chez Swann, by Marcel Proust, purchased by the Ronald Davis bookstore on behalf of Alexandrine de Rothschild. Just five numbered copies were printed on Japanese paper, and this one – the fourth, which featured a long envoi to Jacques de Lacretelle – is the only one of the five to have ever resurfaced. Is it still in Germany? Is it elsewhere? Has it been destroyed?

Egon Schiele, Dämmernde Stadt (Die Kleine Stadt II), 90.5 x 90.1 cm, 1913

Considering the difficulty inherent to books, what is the overall result of the Sotheby’s research department?

The four-person team is assigned with the task of examining all the house’s auction catalogues, including 15,000 works annually, not to mention online sales in today’s world. The research focuses on objects created before 1946 that can be identified in unique ways. Our team verifies these objects using available databases and lists of lost items, while striving to trace the provenance as best as possible. Meanwhile, as experts, we always question the provenance of an object. When a strange stamp or the name of a despoiled family or a corrupt intermediary comes up, we sound the alarm to perform additional research. Overall, each year, some twenty problematic cases might occur.

Portrait by Elsa Koditschek. (Image provided by the Koditschek family. © 2018 / Artists Rights Society, New York City)

What happens when you discover that a work has been despoiled?

First we alert the vendor and sometimes a bailiff to seize the possession pending a fair, equitable solution for both parties. We play the role of the intermediary, performing all the necessary steps until a resolution is found. For most possessors acting in good faith, the vendors are very cooperative in providing archives or other elements available to them on the history of the work. Then the piece may be returned to its rightful owner or sold on, with or without compensation depending on the case. Recently, in New York City in 2018, a painting by Egon Schiele was cleared for sale after we not only established the provenance of the work as the despoilment of the Viennese Elsa Koditschek, but we also made it possible for the work to be spontaneously returned to the rightful inheritors. This case has a symbolic value, demonstrating the role that we strive to play in such matters.

Books & Manuscripts Restitution

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