Most countries have made ‘little or no progress’ in returning Nazi-looted art, report finds

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.


More than half of the countries that signed a statement endorsing the Washington Principles – a set of standards intended to guide the return of art looted by the Nazis – have made “little or no progress” in returning stolen properties in the 25 years since the principles were established, according to a new report released Tuesday by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO).

The framework for restitution was established at the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in 1998 and consists of eleven non-binding principles intended to guide countries with different legal systems on issues related to art seized during the Nazi era taken within the context of their own laws. The principles also encourage countries to identify and investigate cultural property that changed hands during World War II, and to return work that was stolen, confiscated or forcibly sold.

Of the 47 countries that have endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which sets out its principles, seven have made major progress, three have made substantial progress, 13 have made some progress and some 24 countries have made little or no progress, according to Tuesday’s report.

“This report underscores the critical need for progress on the restitution of art and cultural properties,” Gideon Taylor, WJRO president, said in a statement. “Restitution by government agencies or private individuals is not just about returning what has been taken. It’s about reconnecting families and communities with their heritage. Significant progress has been made over the past 25 years, but much work remains ahead.”

The ratings were based on whether a country has conducted historical research into the restitution of World War II art, researched the provenance of its own collections, established a process for filing claims on potentially looted art, or a process has drawn up for submitting claims on possibly stolen art. significant number of refunds.

The countries determined to have made great progress in implementing the Washington Principles are Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain and the US. The thirteen countries that have made some progress include Argentina, Belgium, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland and Serbia.

Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

A 2022 exhibition at the Palais Rohan Museum in Strasbourg, France, featured works of art belonging to Jewish families that were looted by the Nazis during World War II.

According to the report, most countries that signed the Terezin Declaration have made little or no progress. These include Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Ireland, Russia, Spain and Turkey.

The report’s release coincided with an event held in New York by WJRO and the U.S. Department of State, during which U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivered a video keynote address announcing the approval of best practices in the field of restitution of art and cultural property. through 22 countries, led by people with dedicated Holocaust envoys. This is the first government document on Holocaust restitution to be approved in nearly fifteen years, a move that WJRO says will help advance the restitution of art and cultural property.

In the 25 years since the Washington Principles were created, provenance research has made great progress, thanks in part to the digitization of archives and improved access to them. Most signatory countries have also conducted at least some historical research and there is more information about how the looting of cultural properties occurred during World War II, the report said.

However, it points out that museums around the world continue to ‘ignore’ research, adding that in most countries researching the provenance of a collection is not considered an essential part of museum practice. The Washington Principles were designed with the intention of covering private collections, but much less progress has been made in returning work now owned by individuals, the report found. There remains much room for improvement in the areas of provenance research, transparency and facilitating restitution claims when it comes to private collectors, the report said.

“Transparency is key to the just and fair restitution and return of Nazi-looted art and cultural objects to survivors and their heirs,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, special adviser on Holocaust issues to the U.S. Secretary of State, in a statement . “The newly adopted best practices share lessons learned, including the importance of conducting and publishing provenance research, removing legal barriers to restitution, and recognizing that looted art includes pieces sold under duress.”

Although claims procedures have been introduced in many countries, the number of cases resolved and the number of successful refunds remains generally low, the report found. Only five of the 47 countries that have signed the Terezin Declaration have established a restitution committee to process claims. The report also shows that there is greater public awareness of cultural properties that belonged to Jewish communities before World War II, but that in many cases these items remain in private hands rather than becoming part of the collective heritage of the Jewish community. people.

“For us Holocaust survivors, (these) works of art are part of our cultural heritage, part of our lives, part of our past,” said U.S. Ambassador Colette Avital, president of the Center of Holocaust Survivors’ Organizations in Israel, in a speech. statement published by WJRO. “They are the silent witnesses to the lives and loves of individuals, families and communities who were brutally murdered and whose memories we cherish.”

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