Compensation for and restitution of looted art remains a work in progress. Nazis looted an estimated 600,000 paintings from Jews in Europe during World War II, 100,000 of which remain missing. In 1998, the German government signed the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. In the years since, it has returned more than 16,000 individual objects (including books and objects in collections) to Holocaust survivors or their heirs. On November 26, 2018, Germany hosted an international conference on the 20th anniversary of the Washington Principles to draw attention to the progress made and to generate momentum where implementation of the Principles had fallen short, including in Germany. Germany and the United States also signed a joint declaration during the conference reaffirming their commitment to the Washington Principles and acknowledging the need to improve implementation. Germany pledged that it would improve the procedures of the Limbach Commission on Holocaust-era art claims to require German museums to participate in the proceedings. Germany also committed its federally funded art museums to expediting the provenance research on their collections to determine if they possess any art potentially confiscated by the Nazis.
In 2015, the German government established the German Lost Art Foundation (DZK) in Magdeburg to promote provenance research. The DZK has become Germany’s national and international contact partner for all matters pertaining to the illegal seizure of cultural assets in Germany since 1933, with a focus on seizure by Nazis from Jewish owners. The government funds the DZK, which had a budget of $6.86 million in 2018 and $8.95 million in 2019. From 2008 to 2018, the DZK and its predecessor, the Center for Provenance Research in Berlin, supported 273 projects with funding totaling $27.3 million. These projects have examined more than 113,000 objects held in museums to determine their provenance.
The German Lost Art Foundation also maintains an online “Lost Art” database that documents objects proven or suspected of having been confiscated by the Nazis. Heirs can use it to list objects seized from their families. The database currently contains approximately 169,000 detailed descriptions and several million summaries of objects. In 2013, Christie’s auction house used this database to determine that two vases consigned for sale had been looted by the Nazis in 1939. Following further investigation, the FBI art crime team organized the return of the vases to the owner’s heirs in an August 1, 2019 ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Additionally, the DZK provides financial support for searches that trace relatives and heirs of Holocaust victims in order to return looted art to the rightful owners. The DZK is working to complete a comprehensive database of Germany’s federal museums by 2020. Public universities in Bonn, Hamburg, and Munich have established professorships for provenance research.
In 2003, the government established an advisory commission to mediate and provide recommendations on disputed looted art cases upon the request of both parties involved. Thus far, the commission has provided just 16 recommendations, which has led some observers, including the Claims Conference’s lead negotiator and the president of the World Jewish Congress, to criticize its effectiveness and lack of transparency. In response to criticism about the lack of Jewish members on the advisory commission, the Commissioner added two Jewish members in 2016. In 2019, the federal government began requiring the federally funded institutions to agree to mediation by the commission at a claimant’s request. Previously, both parties had to agree to enter mediation. This change, which benefited claimants, was part of the November 2018 U.S.-Germany Joint Declaration [4 MB]. It should be noted that the statutes of limitation also continue to hinder claims for restitution.
The German government maintains possession of the remaining unclaimed objects obtained from “Central Collecting Points” set up by the Allied Forces at the end of World War II. Unclaimed objects include 3,000 works of art, 4,000 coins, and about 6,600 books seized by the Nazi regime or by Nazi officials operating in a private capacity. The government is working to return these items to their rightful owners, but progress is slow.
The German Federal Archives provides access to documents about cultural assets stolen during the Nazi era. In principle, every person has the right to use the federal archives upon request. The federal archives are digitizing a steadily growing portion of their archive holdings and, to the extent legally permissible, making them available online.
The Federal Finance Ministry (BMF) launched a project in August 2018 to create a central interconnected digital portal to find documents from state archives throughout Germany specifically related to Holocaust compensation and restitution. The BMF is also working to create a new database that combines all data concerning individual compensation proceedings and makes it accessible to scientific researchers, as well as to Holocaust survivors and heirs.
The International Archival Programs Division of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has been active in Germany for more than 25 years. It has enjoyed excellent cooperation with the German Federal Archives and the political archive of the German Foreign Office, from which the USHMM recently acquired several million pages of Holocaust-relevant archival documentation on microfilm and as digital scans. The Arolsen Archives in Bad Arolsen (formerly called the International Tracing Service) is a separate archive that contains about 30 million documents from concentration and extermination camps, details of forced labor, and files on displaced persons. The Arolsen Archives, which is governed by an international committee and has been fully funded by the German government since 2011, is digitizing its archives to improve accessibility.
At the state level, the USHMM has signed archival access agreements with North Rhine-Westphalia, Brandenburg, and Bavaria. Cooperation with the state of Hamburg has also been excellent, despite the lack of an official access agreement. Access to the State Archive in Berlin yielded the records of more than 150,000 individual trials against Jews and other victims prosecuted by Nazi courts in the Berlin area. The Berlin State Archive recently suspended its cooperation with the USHMM, however, citing data privacy concerns with regard to the reproduction of records. As of mid-2019, the archive was preparing the digitalization of its data, and discussions about access were ongoing. Other states are similarly concerned about data protection, and this has slowed progress. Cooperation with Saxony is underway, while discussions with Bremen and Saarland are pending. The U.S. Embassy in Berlin and U.S. consulates have advocated with local authorities throughout Germany in support of USHMM requests for access to state archives.
Some advocates for Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims have pointed out that Property (Asset) Declaration forms completed by Jews in Nazi Germany in April 1938 remain scattered among archives in the different German states and have not been digitized. They add that other files relating to post-war claims for Holocaust-era compensation and restitution are located in more than a dozen archives in the country and are generally not publicly accessible. The German government and relevant NGOs and historians are working to develop a plan for the preservation and collection of these documents for use by historians and others. The sheer volume of these archives and the privacy issues involved complicate their task.
The deadlines for many of the restitution funds for Holocaust victims expired many years ago. However, victims who have not yet filed claims can still do so for some funds. The Claims Conference serves as the primary partner for Holocaust victims during the filing process, offering assistance free of charge. Moreover, the Claims Conference and the German government work to identify and contact potential claimants.