Fifty-seven years is a long time to return stolen art to its owners. Yet, there is no time limit for those supporting the Washington Principles to find art looted by the Nazis during World War II and return it to its rightful owners.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles. The principles were released and promoted as part of The Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in December 1998. They address the vast amount of art stolen by the German Reich as they invaded other countries and looted museums, homes, and historical places, stealing both art and artifacts.
Figures suggest that the Nazis looted around 20 percent of Europe’s art. Because Europe has a vast artistic history, that amounts to a tremendous number of art pieces. One estimate suggests that some 600,000 artworks were stolen from Jewish owners or families. And that is only what can be documented.
Other figures suggest that more than 100,000 items have yet to be found or returned to their rightful owners or heirs. Most are not exotic pieces but family heirlooms like crystal, china, and silver.
While the United States didn’t enter World War II until 1941, the war was well underway in Europe. Nazi confiscations started in 1938 in Austria after the German Reich invaded. Poland began seeing its art and culture disappear in 1939.
The Nazis then became more organized and systematic in their thefts of such cultural property. They soon set up agencies in occupied lands for the purpose of confiscating art and artifacts. Vienna’s prominent Jewish families were some of the first targeted. Many lost their entire collections. Jews were also required to register their property with the police. Many were forced to give up their collections to pay for exit visas and immigration taxes.
Jewish and Masonic Temples, synagogues, libraries, and archives were looted beginning in 1940. All art owned by Jews was ordered to be taken by Nazi decree. The pieces were deemed to be without owners since Jews were considered “stateless” and did not have property rights.
More art was stolen after France fell to the Nazis in 1940. Some opportunists bought art cheaply from fleeing Jews who needed money to escape. This was done all while telling the Jewish art owners the buyers were saving the art and helping them escape.
News of the Nazi looting reached the U.S. in 1943. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took action by creating the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas, also called The Roberts Commission. The commission was to coordinate, protect, and recover European art as long as it didn’t interfere with military movements.
One of the greatest finds came in 2012 when authorities in Germany found a treasure trove in a Munich apartment. The collection consisted of more than 1,280 pieces that included drawings, paintings, and prints. It was worth more than $1 billion and had been sitting in the apartment of a recluse. The discovery started with a chance meeting in 2010 and subsequent years of investigation.
Today, much of the stolen art remains lost. However, some active researchers like James Palmer, Mondex Corporation’s founder, conduct meticulous research to locate art and artifacts in an effort to provide restitution of stolen art and cultural property. They verify the art’s provenance, seeking in their own way to repair the harms caused by the horrors of the Nazi regime.
[Alt Text: A private art collection with paintings and a piano may host stolen artwork, which James Palmer restores to their rightful owners]
The Washington Principles are the core values surrounding the mission of finding and returning looted art. The 11 principles start with identifying art that was taken by Nazis without being restituted. The second is to make all relevant records available for research, and the third is to allow personnel to help facilitate identifying the lost art.
Another value is to take the time that has passed since the war, along with the circumstances, into consideration and to make every effort to publicize the art and find its pre-war owners or heirs. Other principles are to create a registry, to encourage pre-war owners or heirs to make claims, and to gain a fair solution for restitution for pre-war owners and heirs, both identified and unidentified.
The final principles call for balanced memberships of commissions and for encouraging nations to develop ways to make practical application of these principles.
The conference on the subject was hosted jointly by the U.S. Department of State and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The conference came from a symposium held in New York City in 1995 and the 1997 Nazi Gold Conference in London.
The Washington Conference was held in 1998. It was global in scope and included representatives from 44 countries and 13 organizations, such as art museums. Its purpose was to establish Jewish losses in cultural pieces and art from the war era and to set a standard for restitution.
Mondex Corporation sees the Washington Principles as a solid approach to finding and returning property looted during the 1930s and 1940s. With Palmer’s leadership, its team has resolved many restitution cases, providing closure to families who lost property and priceless family heirlooms. For James Palmer, art restitution is not about its monetary value. The true value of Mondex Corporation’s work is found in returning art to its rightful owners and educating the world about the Nazi stolen-art trade.
Once the property is found, the challenge becomes working with its current possessor to return it to its rightful heirs. This can involve working with those in the art world, the government, law enforcement, and the courts, as well as individuals. Returning these pieces involves working with other organizations, from museums to art dealers to auction houses, to ensure their safe return. It can also involve working with art restorers to repair any damage that occurred.
As those who drafted and promoted the Washington Principles celebrate the 25th year of implementing them, the work of returning stolen art and cultural property continues. Those who are passionate about it are committed to continuing the work until every possible piece is found and restitution is made.