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History on cultural assets expropriated as the result of National Socialist persecution

National Socialist theft of art and cultural assets

During the National Socialist era, numerous owners of art and other cultural assets were persecuted for racist, political, religious, or ideological reasons, losing their property inter alia as a result of expropriations and forced sales. Expropriations were carried out by a number of state agencies, all acting on the basis of racist legislation. This state organised robbery affected Jewish citizens, people persecuted as Jews by the National Socialists, non-Jews such as Sinti and Roma, and people of other nationalities. It took place not only within the German Reich from 1933 to 1945 but also in all territories occupied by the German armed forces during the Second World War.

The London Declaration (1943) as the basis for the allied occupation forces in Germany’s restitutionary regulations

As early as 1943, in the London Declaration the western allies issued a general condemnation of the expropriations that had been carried out in territories occupied or controlled by Germany. At the same time, with this declaration the allies announced that all related transfer documents were null and void.

The allies‘ reparation laws of 1947 and 1948 and the German Reparation Law of 1957 regulated restitution and compensation payments in western Germany. These provisions were not applied to the Soviet zone of occupation or the territory of the later GDR. With the reunification of the two German states in 1990, the GDR Property Act allowed claims by injured parties to be enforced in eastern Germany. Despite these limited legal proceedings, only a part of the looted cultural assets has been returned or compensated for.

Washington Conference (1998)

At the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets at the end of 1998, 44 participating nations, including the Federal Republic of Germany, reaffirmed common principles regarding art works expropriated by the National Socialists. While accepting the existence of differing legal systems, eleven principles in dealing with art works expropriated as the result of National Socialist persecution were agreed upon.

Collections and inventories were to be examined for the presence of art works looted by the National Socialists, and objects thus identified returned to the victims or their heirs, or some other just and fair solution agreed upon with the latter.

Efforts were to be made to identify such art works in collections and inventories and to restore these to the victims or their heirs. In order to investigate past transactions, resources and personnel were to be made available and a central register containing all relevant information set up. The goal of the Washington Declaration was to find “just and fair solutions” for all parties concerned.

The Common Declaration (1999)

With its declaration on the “tracing and return of cultural assets confiscated by the National Socialists, especially with regard to Jewish property,” of December 1999 (the Common Declaration), the German federal and state governments and national associations of local authorities committed themselves to the realisation of the Washington Declaration. The Common Declaration affirms that the identification and restitution of cultural assets looted by the National Socialists is a core undertaking of all cultural institutions in the public sphere. In addition, with their Common Declaration the federal and state governments and national associations of local authorities appeal to institutions organised under private law and to private individuals to play an active role in implementing the Washington Declaration.

Lost Art Databank (2000)

In 2000 the coordination centre located in Magdeburg put the Lost Art DatabankOpens in a new window online. Through publication of search requests and found-object reports, the aim is to bring together the previous owners of an object or their heirs and the object’s current possessors and—if it is a case of a cultural asset looted by the National Socialists—to search for a fair and just solution in the spirit of the aforementioned Washington Principles and Common Declaration.

Agency for Provenance Research Berlin (2008)

State-financed support for provenance research began in 2008 via the Agency for Provenance Research at the Institute for Museum Research of the Berlin State Museums – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. Using resources made available by the federal government’s Commissioner for Culture and the Media, numerous projects aimed at searching in German museums, libraries, and archives for cultural assets looted by the National Socialists were funded and initiated.

The Schwabing art trove (2013)

With the so-called “Schwabing art trove” and the accompanying media echo, the topic of cultural assets looted by the National Socialists once again became a focus of public and political attention.

The Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e.V. (2014)

In November 2000, four provenance researchers founded the Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung with the aim of exchanging information on their research. In the years that followed, that featured biannual meetings, there developed a close network of over 90 researchers, who in November 2014 united to form a registered association. To date, the Arbeitskreis für Provenienzforschung e.V. consists of over 300 researchers from Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and the United States.

The international Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e.V. fosters the development of provenance research in all its fields of activity. It has set itself the task of systematising and methodically consolidating interdisciplinary research into the provenance, and acquisition and ownership history, of cultural assets.

The German Lost Art Foundation (2015)

In 2015 the German Lost Art Foundation was established in Magdeburg, amalgamating the Agency for Provenance Research and the Coordination Centre Magdeburg. The foundation is supported by the federal government, all 16 state governments, and the three national associations of local authorities.

Besides numerous projects in public and private institutions—largely third-party financed and of limited duration—starting in 2012 the first permanent posts for provenance researchers and research associations were gradually established in several German states.

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