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Provenance: A Forensic History of Art

5/13/2017 - 12/11/2018
Organizing institution: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Primary Curator: Nancy Karrels

This exhibition presents recent research into the World War II-era provenance of the Trees collection at Krannert Art Museum to examine the history of ownership through six of the museum’s longest-held paintings. Exploring themes such as genealogy, documentation, attribution, and the perplexing problem of identifying unfamiliar collectors’ marks, Provenance: A Forensic History of Art displaces the prevalent conception of forensic inquiry as a tool for crime scene investigation and relocates it from the laboratory to the art collection. Etymologically, forensics relate to courts of law: a “forensic” investigation denotes the methodical examination and compilation of evidence for a court or other public forum. Likewise, provenance research is a forensic method employed to reconstruct legal chains of ownership that establish an artwork’s whereabouts from the moment of creation to its present circumstances. Once customary, this now unsung approach to art history yields rich and nuanced information about the lives of objects—information whose value lies not only in its legal significance, but also its ability to reveal the very personal journeys of artworks through the lives of collectors. [Curated by Nancy Karrels, doctoral candidate in Art History, based on research supervised by Maureen Warren, curator of European and American Art]

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