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

The Art Newspaper 5 March 2024
By Carlie Porterfield

Only seven nations have made major inroads in recovering property seized during the Holocaust, according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization

More than half of the countries that signed onto a declaration endorsing the Washington Principles—a set of standards meant to guide the return of art looted by the Nazis—have made minimal to no progress in returning stolen property in the 25 years since the principles were drafted, according to a new report released by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) on Tuesday 4 March.

The framework for restitutions was drafted during the the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in 1998 and consists of 11 non-binding principles meant to guide countries with different legal systems through issues related to art seized during the Nazi era within the context of their own laws. The principles also encourage countries to identify and research cultural property that may have changed hands during the Second World War and to return work that was looted, confiscated or sold under duress.

Of the 47 nations that endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which incorporated the principles in its measures meant to recover property seized during the Holocaust, seven have made major progress, three have made substantial progress, 13 have made some progress and a whopping 24 countries have made little or no progress, according to Tuesday’s report.

"This report underscores the critical need for advancement in art and cultural property restitution," Gideon Taylor, the president of WJRO, said in a statement. "Restitution from public bodies or private individuals is not just about returning what was taken. It's about reconnecting families and communities with their heritage. Over the past 25 years, there has been significant progress, but much work lies ahead.”

The ratings were based on whether a country has done historical research on the restitution of art taken during the Second World War, has looked into the provenance of its own collections, has determined a process for claims to be made on potentially looted art or has made a substantial number of restitutions.

The countries determined to have made major progress in implementing the Washington Principles include Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the US. The 13 countries that have made some progress are Argentina, Belgium, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland and Serbia.

Most countries that signed onto the Terezin Declaration have made little or no progress, according to the report. These include Albania, Australia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine and Uruguay.

The release of the report coincided with an event held in New York by WJRO and the US State Department, during which US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivered a keynote address via video announcing the endorsement of best practices in art and cultural-property restitution by 21 countries, led by those with dedicated Holocaust envoys. This marks the first governmental document on Holocaust restitution to be endorsed in nearly 15 years, a step WJRO says will help advance the restitution of art and cultural property.

In the 25 years since the Washington Principles were established, provenance research has made major inroads thanks in part to the digitisation of archives and improved access to them. Most countries have also carried out at least some historical research, and there is more information about how the looting of cultural property took place during the Second World War, according to the report. However, it points out that museums across the world still disregard research, adding that in most countries, probing the provenance of a collection is not considered an essential part of museum practice. The Washington Principles were drafted with the intent to also cover private collections, but there has been far less progress in restituting work now held by individuals, the report found. There remains much room for improvement for provenance research, transparency and facilitating restitution claims when it comes to private collectors, according to the report.

"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, the US Secretary of State’s Special Adviser on Holocaust Issues, in a statement. “The recently endorsed best practices share lessons learned, including the importance of conducting and publishing provenance research, removing legal barriers to restitution and recognising that looted art includes pieces sold under duress."

While claims processes have been put in place in many countries, the number of cases handled and the number of successful restitutions typically remain low, the report found. Only five of the 47 countries that endorsed the Terezin Declaration have established a restitution commission to handle claims. The report also found that there is a greater public awareness of cultural property that belonged to Jewish communities before the Second World War, but that in many instances, those pieces remain in private hands rather than being part of the collective heritage of the Jewish people.

“For us Holocaust survivors, [these] works of art are part of our cultural heritage, part of our lives, part of our past,” US Ambassador Colette Avital, chairperson of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said in a statement. “They are the silent witnesses of the lives and loves of individuals, families and communities who were murdered cruelly and whose memories we cherish.”
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