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Holocaust Restitution: Recovering Stolen Art

Dwight D. Eisenhower (right) inspects stolen artwork in a salt mine in Merkers,
accompanied by Omar Bradley (left) and George S. Patton (center)

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 its 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. 

A partnership between university researchers, the German Lost Art Foundation, and the descendants of Rudolf Mosse was announced in March 2017 in support of the Mosse Art Research Initiative. The project aimed to locate the expansive lost art collection of prominent publisher Rudolf Mosse, who fled to France in 1933 shortly after the Nazis rise to power. Although this was the first time that the German Lost Art Foundation had financed a plan to track down a particular family's heirlooms, a spokesperson for the Foundation stated that they hope that more projects of this variety will apply for funding in the future.  Eleven German museums and archives have agreed to participate in the Mosse Art Research Initiative. The initiative had been active for five years before the 2017 collaboration was announced, and several institutions housing stolen Mosse art have already been identified. Altogether, researchers believe that the Nazis looted approximately 4,000 works from the Mosse collection.  

Max Liebermann's Two Riders On The Beach discovered in the Gurlitt Collection and subsequently restituted to the descendants of the original Jewish owner

n June 2018, a stolen sculpture discovered in the Bode Museum in Berlin, Germany was returned to the heirs of the original owners and then sold back to the museum. The sculpture, which depicts three angels floating on clouds surrounding a sleeping infant Jesus, had once belonged to German Jewish Industrialist Ernst Saulmann and his wife Agathe. The couple fled Germany in 1935 and their land, businesses and belongings were confiscated by the Nazis. The Saulmanns were captured by Nazis in France and were sent to internment camps. Although they survived the camps and were rescued, they both died shortly after the war. Descendants of the Saulmanns hired researchers to find their families stolen art, and have been able to find eleven works out of the hundreds that were stolen.  

In 2019, Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie returned two panels dating from about 1455 by the Italian artist Giovanni di Paolo depicting two scenes of the life of St. Clare of Assisi to the heirs of Harry Fuld Sr. In past years the Fuld’s received other possessions looted by the Nazis. Fuld, who died in 1932, owned a Frankfurt-based company that produced and sold telephones, which was expropriated from his wife and sons who subsequently fled the country.

In January 2020, the German government returned three works of art stolen during the Nazi occupation of France to descendants of their original owner, the collector and Jewish lawyer Armand Dorville who died in 1941. The three items were among the roughly 1,500 discovered in the home of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2013. Gurlitt’s father had been given the task of selling art taken from Jewish owners. Only 13 works have been returned to the families of the original owners.

Sources: Lost Art Internet Database;
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;
Colin Moynihan.  German Foundation to Help Jewish Heirs in Search for Nazi Looted Art, New York Times (March 7, 2017);
Berlin Museum Returns Nazi-Looted Sculpture To Jewish Heirs, JTA, (June 29, 2018);
Marcy Oster, “Nazi-looted art returned to heirs of German-Jewish art collector,” JTA, (September 4, 2019);
“Germany returns artwork stolen by Nazis to French Jewish family,” AFP, (January 22, 2020).

Photos: Eisenhower - Lt. Moore, U.S. Army, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Max Liebermann, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.