On 12 March 1998 a meeting was held in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, by directors of museums in the Netherlands. Its subject was the dubious acquisitions, which some museums appeared to have made in the period 1940-1945. It was felt that the partly obscure, sometimes identifiably questionable provenance of a number of museum objects acquired in this period urgently required closer research. During the meeting the Committee on Museum Acquisitions 1940-1948 was therefore set up. It was the committee’s task to stimulate and coordinate an active and thorough self-analysis of the Dutch museums into the acquisitions in the period during and shortly after World War II, apart from specific claims or inquiries by interested parties.
The Netherlands Museums Association (NMV) was asked to fulfil a key role in order to give the necessary broad-based acceptance. Through the NVM the committee gave guidelines to the museums on how to implement their research. In doing so the committee realised that it would often not be simple for the museums to recognize if acquisitions had a dubious nature. In many cases conclusions could only be made after several sources of information had been combined.
The Inspectorate of Cultural Heritage, which had before been closely involved in research into the provenance of objects recovered from Germany and under the custodianship of the State of the Netherlands (the ‘NK-onderzoek’), was an essential partner in arranging and analysing the data supplied by the individual museums and combining them with data from another source. With financial support from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science a researcher, Drs Eelke Muller, could be appointed. On behalf of the committee she joined together the results of the self-analysis of the museums, was able to provide further instructions to the museums for continuing research and made an analysis of the research for the benefit of the present report.
As said above, the research was initially meant to make museums duly ascertain which acquisitions had taken place in their institutions or their predecessors in the 1940-1948 period. Besides, the committee set up a Guideline on Museum Acquisitions 1940-1948 which indicates how museums should act if there is obvious doubt about the provenance of an object, or if claimants still lodge a claim. Although such claims, legally speaking, will have lapsed, the guideline presumes that museums have an obligation of ethics and decency in evident or poignant cases to reach a solution that will be acceptable for both parties. The number of problem cases that emerged was relatively small; however, in the course of the research it became clear that a large number of cases would deserve more specific or continuing research. In many other cases the museums were confronted with uncertainties which will remain insoluble for the time being through the scarcity of sources, and which will only be elucidated if new factual material becomes available. It therefore befits the museums to be observant, they should be convinced of the fact that research in such cases can never be solved to everyone’s full satisfaction. Advancing understanding, and also the sidelight which research elsewhere can sometimes provide, forces the museums to continuous alertness with regard to the provenance history of their collections. This applies equally to objects to be acquired in the future. Although the Nazi period is more than half a century behind us, the museum world, too, may be confronted with its sad consequences every day.