The Nelson-Atkins Provenance Specialist is an Art Detective Who Probes the Past
On Jan. 26, “Discriminating Thieves: Nazi-Looted Art and Restitution” opened at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It tells the stories, in fascinating detail, of four pieces that were looted by the Nazis during World War II, found when the war ended, returned to their rightful owners and legally acquired by the Nelson-Atkins.
Most of the stolen art objects of the Nazi era have been recovered, but some remain lost. Worldwide, the stolen art list has grown with the addition of thousands of other, more recently looted, pieces from war-torn countries. So, the work goes on to find lost artworks and their rightful owners. That is the work of provenance specialists, including the Nelson-Atkins’ MacKenzie Mallon, curator of “Discriminating Thieves,” who opened the exhibit Jan. 31 with a talk titled: “What Once was Lost: Nazi Art Looting and Allied Restitution.”
Mallon, who was handed the provenance specialist baton in 2015, is the first to hold that title at the Nelson-Atkins. A Kansas City native, she earned her bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in art history from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She started work at the Nelson-Atkins in 2006 as a part-time project assistant in the European department, after which she held other positions leading her along the path to becoming the museum’s provenance specialist.
Mallon refers to her field as “the other art history” but explains that provenance is “the history of an artwork, and more specifically, the ownership of a piece, from the moment of its creation by the artist down to the present.” Provenance research at the Nelson-Atkins is done by Mallon and the curatorial staff, while Mallon coordinates that research and documentation standards and practices, and trains staff in their utilization.
As Mallon explains, although provenance research has always been a part of museum work, it came into its own in the late 1990s in response to calls for a redoubling of efforts to find and repatriate Nazi-looted art that had still not been found. A conference held in 1998 in Washington, D.C., involving representatives from 44 governments resulted in the creation of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, a set of guidelines and procedures meant to help governments resolve issues surrounding Nazi-confiscated art.
Soon thereafter, the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors created museum industry standards for the identification of Nazi-looted art in American museum collections. This led many museums, including the Nelson-Atkins, to begin to systematically research their collections.
Over the course of the next decade, provenance research emerged as a specialized field, setting the stage for Mallon’s appointment. Given the newness of the field, it was a position for which she had little formal training in college. Instead she attended professional conferences and training programs and established her network of like-minded researchers, here and abroad.
Although she got her start searching for the provenance of Nazi-looted art, which remains her specialty, Mallon’s work today involves working with the museum’s curators to investigate the history and previous ownership of each item in the Nelson-Atkins permanent collection, as well as those being considered for purchase. She says it’s “like detective work,” looking for clues to an object’s past, then following those clues to wherever they might lead.
In 2017 Mallon was selected as a participant in the German-American Provenance Research Exchange, which brought together 10 American and 10 German/Austrian provenance researchers to share their expertise on the Nazi era. She soon became a presenter and co-organizer for provenance-related programs in the United States and Europe.
Mallon describes her work as “fun,” “extremely rewarding” and “the best job in the world.” But, she says, it can also be “frustrating” when the story remains incomplete. “Records get lost or destroyed; former collectors and dealers pass on without leaving memoirs or archives.” And given the business of stolen art, there is “a wealth of falsified documents testifying to entirely fabricated provenances.”
She admits that, “Sometimes, despite our best efforts and due diligence, provenance research on an object can be next to impossible,” but new resources are becoming available all the time, especially digital resources, that make her work easier. The Nelson-Atkins, much like other major museums around the world, is in the process of researching and digitizing the provenance of its more than 40,000 objects.
It is a contribution to the art world of which Mallon and the Nelson-Atkins are rightfully proud. As Mallon puts it, “Researching the provenance of the objects in their collection is a fundamental part of a museum’s responsibility for the care of their collections.” It is “an integral part of our stewardship of the objects in our care.”
“Provenance research into ownership is both specific and painstaking,” says the museum’s director & CEO, Julián Zugazagoitia, “and the Nelson-Atkins is lucky to have MacKenzie, who is gaining a national reputation for her important work in this field. She has uncovered fascinating stories of the incredible journey the art in this exhibition has travelled.”
“Discriminating Thieves” continues through Jan. 26, 2020. On Oct. 3, Mallon will give a second talk: “Safe Haven: The Nelson-Atkins and the Protection of Art during World War II.” For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.
Above: MacKenzie Mallon stands in the “Discriminating Thieves” exhibition beside a portrait of Augustus the Strong by Nicholas de Largilliere. The painting was stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish collector and discovered in an Austrian salt mine by Allied troops. (photo by Jim Barcus)