The Harvard Art Museums acquire new objects by gift, bequest, and purchase. The text that follows describes how curators think about the objects being considered for acquisition. It is excerpted from guidelines and procedure adopted in January 2009, codifying practices that had been followed for many years.
Should you be considering offering a gift of artwork, please be aware that our primary role as a museum within a teaching institution, our limited gallery and storage space, and the added demands that every object places on our small budget and staff all require that we be very selective in our new acquisitions. Offers will be considered by curatorial specialists to determine how they might be used to further our missions. Offers of gifts of art should be directed to:
am_asianmediterranean [at] harvard [dot] edu (Amy Brauer), Diane Heath Beever Curator of the Collection, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art
am_moderncontemporary [at] harvard [dot] edu (Sarah Kianovsky), Curator of the Collection, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art
am_europeanamerican [at] harvard [dot] edu (Miriam Stewart), Curator of the Collection, Division of European and American Art
[From policy established January 2009]
Acquiring works of art is an essential and vital part of the Harvard Art Museums’ activities. The museums will adhere to a thoughtful acquisitions policy that limits new accessions to works of substantial value for teaching and research. Stewardship of collections entails the highest public trust and carries with it the presumption of rightful ownership, care, documentation, accessibility, and responsible disposal. All objects that enter the collections must be acquired in accordance with state and federal law, university guidelines, ethical standards, and professional practices and procedures.
The following policy governs the acquisition of works of art for the museums’ collections, whether made by purchase, gift, bequest, exchange, transfer, or any other means.
1. The museums will not acquire an object without assurance that valid and legal title can be transferred. No object will be acquired if there is cause to believe that collecting it recently damaged its original historic, cultural, social, or natural context.
2. The museums will undertake due diligence to establish the legal status of an object under consideration for acquisition, making every reasonable effort to investigate, substantiate, or clarify the provenance of the object.
3. The museums will not acquire an object if there is reasonable cause to believe that, since November 17, 1970 , it may have been stolen, illegally excavated or removed from a monument, site, or wreck contrary to local law or otherwise acquired in or exported from its country of origin or any intermediate country, in violation of that country’s laws or any international treaties. The museums will not acquire any object that lacks a secure ownership history, unless there is reliable documentation to show it was exported from its country of origin before November 17, 1970, or unless in the best judgments of experts in the field concerned the object is of minor importance  and has not been illicitly traded, or the museums are acting as a place of temporary safety, in which case the object must not be accessioned.
The museums will carefully assess the significance of any gaps in the ownership history of an object, applying extra scrutiny when warranted by special circumstances, such as wartime or periods of political upheaval.
Under some government policies, laws, or conventions there may be procedures to give museums consent to acquire an object that would otherwise be unacceptable. In such cases it is vital to obtain such consent before acquiring the object.
1. Acquisition of any object, including but not limited to archaeological materials, requires:
—Documentation or substantial evidence that the object was in the United States by November 17, 1970, OR
—Documentation or substantial evidence that the object was out of its country of origin before November 17, 1970, and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States, OR
—Documentation or substantial evidence that the object was legally exported from its country of origin after November 17, 1970, and that it has been or will be legally imported into the United States.
2. Warranties of good title and legal export shall be required as a condition of each acquisition or donation.
3. Once acquired, an object will be promptly accessioned, catalogued, and published in accordance with the museums’ standard procedures. It will be published no later than the annual report for the year in which it was acquired.
4. All information obtained about the provenance of an acquisition must be preserved, and (unless, in the opinion of the museums director and the Office of General Counsel, specific circumstances dictate otherwise) such information shall be made available to the public upon written request.
 The date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Harvard University decided to adhere to this convention on July 1, 1971.
 “Objects of minor importance” tend to be of relatively low monetary value, small in size, made of relatively inexpensive or plentiful materials, be of common types, or types of which multiple examples were made and have survived.
Should the Harvard Art Museums find themselves in possession of an object that can be shown, by clear and convincing evidence, to have been acquired, excavated, or exported in violation of the terms described above, the museums shall proceed in good faith to determine what steps might be taken to preserve the interests of all concerned parties. These steps may, in the appropriate circumstances, include a return of the object to its country of origin or the restitution of an object to an earlier owner, provided such a return or restitution is consistent with the President and Fellows’ legal and fiduciary duties as stewards of a public trust.
“Provenance” is a list of the previous owners of a work of art, tracing it from the hand of the artist or maker to its present location and owner. Knowing the provenance can help to determine the authenticity of a work, establish the historical importance of a work by suggesting other artists who might have seen and been influenced by it, and determine the legitimacy of current ownership.
Provenance information for works of art can vary widely in completeness and accuracy. Sources for provenance information include exhibition catalogues, catalogues raisonné, and correspondence with other scholars. Information can also be gleaned from labels and other markings on the object itself, which can point to its movement over time. However, even after extensive research, it is not unusual for long periods in the history of a centuries-old object to remain unaccounted for.
Association of Art Museum Directors Object Registry
Sponsored by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the Object Registry comprises two databases: The Registry of New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art provides information on acquisitions of select works of archeological and ancient art by AAMD member museums. The Registry of Resolution of Claims for Nazi-Era Cultural Assets provides information on the resolution of formal claims made to AAMD member museums regarding works of art believed to have been stolen by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.
Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal
Sponsored by the American Association of Museums, the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal provides a searchable registry of objects in US museum collections that changed hands in Continental Europe during the Nazi era (1933–1945).
Holocaust International Research Portal
The International Research Portal is a collaboration among national and other archival institutions with records that pertain to Nazi-Era cultural property.
World War II–Era Provenance Research at the Harvard Art Museums
It has long been known that hundreds of thousands of works of art were stolen or looted or otherwise illicitly changed hands in occupied Europe during World War II. However, the documents that would allow us to trace some of these works have become available only in recent years. In 1998 member institutions of the Association of Art Museum Directors, including the Harvard Art Museums, committed themselves to examining the provenance of works in their collections to determine whether they may have been subject to looting or other improper transactions.
In theory, any work that was acquired in or after 1933, was made in or before 1945, and might have been in areas of Europe occupied by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 could have been looted. Thousands of works of art in our collections fall into this category. Provenance research at the Harvard Art Museums is an ongoing process. Priority for in-depth research is been given to works whose provenance includes names of collectors, dealers, and others associated with looted or otherwise illicitly transferred works. Along with researching our own records, we contact dealers, collectors, scholars, curators, and auction houses, visit national and international archives, and consult with recognized experts in this field. Provenance research is also conducted on all new acquisitions
Basic reading on the topic includes:
Konstantin Akinsha et al., Beautiful Loot: The Secret Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasures (New York: Random House, 1995).
Robert M. Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. (New York: Center Street, 2009).
Hector Feliciano, The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Esther Tisa Francini et al. Fluchtgut-Raubgut: Der Transfer von Kulturgütern in und über die Schweiz 1933-1945 und die Frage der Restitution (Zurich: Chronos, 2001).
Michael Kurtz, Nazi Contraband: American Policy on the Return of European Culture (New York: Garland, 1985).
Sophie Lillie, Was Einmal War, Handbuch der enteignete Kunstsammlungen Wien (Vienna: Czernin Verlag, 2003).
Laszlo Mravik, The ‘Sacco di Budapest’ and Depredation of Hungary, 1938–1949 (Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 1998).
Eelke Muller et al., BetwistBezit: de Stichting Nederlands Kunstbezit en de teruggave van roofkunst na 1945 (Zwolle: Waanders, 2002).
Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York: Knopf, 1994).
Jonathan Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
Répertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre, 1939–1945, Tome II: Tableaux, tapisseries et sculptures (Berlin: Impr. Nationale, 1947).
Elizabeth Simpson, The Spoils of War (New York: Abrams, 1997).
Adriaan Venema, Kunsthandel in Nederland, 1940–1945 (Amsterdam: Arbeiderspers, 1986).
Verlorene Werke der Malerei in Deutschland in der Zeit von 1939 bis 1945: zerstörte und verschollene Gemälde aus Museen und Galerien (Munich: Ackermanns, 1965).
Nancy Yeide et al., The AAM Guide to Provenance Research (Washington, DC: The American Association of Museums, 2001).