The Obligation of Ownership.
An Art Collection under Scrutiny

04.05.2018 – 06.01.2020

Is this looted art? For years museums have been asking themselves this critical question in view of their collections and have been digging deeper into their own history, often for the first time. Not only the discovery of masterpieces of classic modernism in Cornelius Gurlitt’s flat in 2013, but also current debates such as the one on the provenance of the ethnological exhibits at the future Humboldt forum in Berlin continue to fuel this subject.

Every artwork, every object has a fate which needs to be clarified – thus provenance research has emerged from the backrooms of museums to become a social discourse about moral obligation and responsibility.
Reason enough for the Zeppelin Museum to also take a critical look at the history of its art collection. This special exhibition presents the results of almost two years of meticulous research which was generously supported by the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation) in Magdeburg – a basis for future work in this field.
The seemingly idyllic re-establishment of the museum after 1945 was deceptive: after everything was lost during the Second World War, a euphoric spirit of optimism led to the purchase of over 100 artworks from German, Swiss, and Austrian art dealers in just a few years. This occurred at a time when many previously Jewish-owned pieces were still circling the art market or remained unclaimed due to theft, abduction, or because they had been left behind during flights and then found their way into private but also public collections.
Without a critical examination of its provenance, the collection was celebrated as a glorious new beginning with its re-opening in 1957. Since then, works from the Gothic period, the 19th century, and first-rate classic modernist pieces have been continuously added to these acquisitions.
The exhibition is thus one of the first to approach the significant role of provenance research after 1945 with the aim of discussing particularities, challenges, and problems. The stories behind certain objects and the chronology of the steps leading to the establishment of the collection shed light on the evacuation and translocation of artworks around 1945, the structures of the revived art market, and important art dealers – especially those who quietly re-established themselves as recognised art experts in the idyllic holiday resort at Lake Constance after their careers under the National Socialists. Moreover, the lasting repercussions of National Socialism are illustrated by examples which were either vilified as “degenerate” before 1945, or could be identified as part of the Hermann Göring “collection”. Above all, the focus is on individual collectors, and thus, on people whose stories were defined by the historical schisms of the 20th century and are inextricably connected with the artworks. An accompanying publication and a convention on the exhibition are in preparation.

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