Project description

The research portal “German Sales 1930-1945: Artworks, Art Markets, and Cultural Policy,” is the result of a collaboration between the Heidelberg University Library, the Art Library of the Berlin State Museums (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Undertaken between 2010 and 2012, the project compiled the first comprehensive collection of auction catalogues published in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland between 1930 and 1945, digitized it, and made it widely accessible through an online research database.

The modern art market has recently attracted a great deal of attention within art historical studies. While scholars have long focused on the individual personalities and psychology of art collectors and dealers—attested to by the great number of monographs, essays, and exhibitions on this topic—the field has lacked a systematic study of the fundamental components and mechanisms of the art market in the first half of the twentieth century. This lacuna has been particularly glaring for provenance research, which is often hindered by the wide dispersal of source materials. The investigation of the modern art market however is not only of value from an art historical perspective. Political and legal questions concerning art theft, expropriation, confiscation, and forced sales are integral to an understanding of art and cultural policy in the 1930s and early 40s. Given these various facets of the project, the data made available here will lend itself to interdisciplinary exchanges between scholars of the art market, political science, history, economics, and various branches of cultural studies.

The Washington Conference of 1998 exhorted a broad international network of museums to undertake research on their collections in order to identify artworks confiscated by the National Socialists that had still to be restituted to their rightful owners. To satisfy this mandate, researchers in museums have studied the provenance of individual artworks on a case-by-case basis, often in isolation from related objects and institutions. This research frequently recycles the same literature and source materials. Auction catalogues published between 1930 and 1945 are therefore of extensive import for this type of research. They often give detailed descriptions of the artworks and disclose details of their provenance.

Until recently it was impossible to study these catalogues all together; no institution in the world had devoted itself to systematically collecting and processing them. Major libraries and museums documented their auction catalogues according to widely varying standards. Provenance researchers, librarians, archivists, and scholars in the social sciences who deal with art and cultural policy in the Third Reich were previously in dire need of a centralized and easily accessible database that encompassed all auction catalogues from this period, processed in a consistent manner.

The Art Library of the Berlin State Museums constructed the basic bibliography for the project, which rose to upwards of 3,000 catalogues sourced from 36 German, Austrian, and Swiss libraries and institutions. The Heidelberg University Library digitized the catalogues and produced OCR texts parsed into specific data fields to facilitate targeted searches. The Getty Provenance Index® integrates all three components of the project, bibliographic metadata (Berlin), data entry (Los Angeles), and catalogue scans (Heidelberg). As a result, all available information on the relevant art objects, from prices to buyers, have become viable search parameters.

Since February 2013, all auction catalogues published between 1930 and 1945 in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as well as most parts of the German-occupied territories have been available online in digitized form, and their full text searchable for free on arthistoricum.net. Individual records are retrievable by any of the Getty Provenance Index’s® search criteria as well. Through this collaboration, the scope of the project grew from 2,200 to more than 3,000 catalogues, a 30% increase over the amount of source material initially identified. The process of jointly compiling this comprehensive bibliography and physically locating its contents among an international network of institutions may pave the way for future projects similar in ambition or scope. This project provides the first authoritative database of the German art market and opens new doors for research in the fields of provenance as well as art and the social sciences.