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Holocaust Restitution: Recovering Stolen Art

(Updated September 2014)

During World War II, Nazi Germany led a systematic campaign to loot and plunder art from Jews and others in the occupied countries. Much of the stolen art was recovered by the Allies in the immediate aftermath of the war, however, thousands of valuable art pieces were not returned to their rightful owners or were never relocated. In the decades following the Holocaust, a concerted international effort was undertaken to identify Nazi plunder that still remains unaccounted for with the aim of ultimately returning the items to the rightful owners or their families.

The Third Reich amassed hundreds of thousands of pieces of artwork - worth billions of dollars - and stored them throughout Germany. Other pieces deemed "degenerate" were legally banned from entering Germany so Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels tasked a number of approved dealers with liquidating these assets overseas and passing the funds back for the Nazi war effort.

At the end of World War II, the Allies found plundered artwork in more than 1,000 repositories across Germany and Austria. Under the direction of the U.S. Army, nearly 700,000 pieces were identified and restituted to the countries from which they were taken, whose governments were then supposed to locate the original owners and return the art. Unfortunately, thousands of pieces either never made their way back to the rightful owners or the owners could not be tracked down.

In 1985, European countries began to release inventory lists of works of art "that were confiscated from Jews by the Nazis during World War II, and announced the details of a process for returning the works to their owners and rightful heirs."

The recovery of stolen art took a more international scale in 1998. On June 30, thirty-nine countries signed a joint pledge to identify art stolen from Holocaust victims and to compensate their heirs. Nearly every European country - in addition to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Russia and Israel - signed the agreement. Soon after, an Austrian advisory panel recommended the return of 6,292 art objects to their legal owners, most of whom were Jews.

In November 1998, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum co-hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in whcih delegations from forty-four governments and thirteen non-governmental organizations participated.  Though the conference addressed various issues related to the confiscation of assets by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the principal issue was looted art and the conference achieved a substantial degree of consensus on a set of principles dealing with looted art.  These principles include encouraging research into the provenance and identification of art, calling for these findings to be publicized, urging the establishment of a central computerized registry linking all Holocaust-era art-loss databases and encouraging alternative dispute-resolution strategies.

Following the Washington Conference, the Association of Art Museum Directors developed guidelines requiring museums to review the provenance of their art collections, focusing on art looted by the Nazis. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, for example, identified more than 400 European paintings with gaps in their provenance during World War II era while New York City's Museum of Modern Art told Congress that they were "not aware of a single Nazi-tainted work of art in our collection of more than 100,000."

In Germany, the government subsequently established the Lost Art Database to serve as a central office for the documentation of lost cultural property which as a result of Nazi persecution were relocated, moved or seized, especially from Jewish owners.

In January 2006, a court ruling stated that Austria must return five paintings by world renowned artist Gustav Klimt to the heirs of a Jewish family from whom the paintings were stolen during the Nazi occupation in Austria. The paintings had been housed and displayed for decades in the Belvedere castle gallery in Vienna.

In November 2013, German authorities announced the discovery of a trove of about 1,500 artworks confiscated by the Nazis. The art was unearthed nearly two years prior in a Munich apartment belonging to the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of Goering's specially approved art dealers commissioned to liquidate degenerate art, but was not announced at the time to allow for the building of a provenance investigation. The works, by artists including Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, are estimated to be worth about $1.35 billion, though determining their rightful could take years.

The Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) announced on September 11 2014 that there has been extremely minimal effort put forth by individual countries since The Washington Conference to return Jewish artwork stolen by the Nazis.  The two organizations had been studying the identification of Jewish artwork and historical artifacts stolen by the Nazis for the past 15 years and have come to the conclusion that the majority (2/3) of countries who had signed on to Jewish art reparration agreements have done "little or nothing" to implement the requirements of these agreements.  In order to ensure that all art makes it's way back to the rightful owners, as a part of the report the Claims Conference and the WJRO suggested that an "International Association of Provenance Researchers" be formed in order to assist museums in evaluating their collections and making certain that no stolen art is included.  The implementation of this association will allow standards to be created for stolen art evaluation, provide assistance and training for art professionals, and generally provide another avenue for effective communication and cooperation between museum staff around the world. 

Sources: Lost Art Internet Database; Wikipedia - Nazi Plunder; Wall Street Journal (November 4, 2013); National Gallery of Art Provenance Research; Associated Press (June 30, 1998); Washington Post (January 18, 2006); Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for the U.S. House International Relations Committee, The Claims Conference