Schlosskirche Ellingen, Ellingen, April 1945

Nazi-looted Cultural Property: Basics & Overview

Historical background to National Socialist art looting, basic documents, assistance for provenance research and details of contacts – on this page we provide important information on the subject of cultural property expropriated as a result of Nazi persecution. We define key terms such as National Socialist art looting and provenance research and take a look back at the Gurlitt Art Trove.

Historical Background

When they seized power in 1933, the National Socialists began to eliminate political opponents and disagreeable organisations, gradually depriving Jewish citizens in particular of their rights. By introducing various laws and taxes or compulsory levies, the regime also created the basis for expropriating the property of political opponents and seizing the assets of Jewish citizens. The disenfranchisement and expropriation of Jewish citizens gained pace after the pogrom night of 1938, ultimately leading to the systematic murder of millions of Jewish people in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany.

Key Events

National Socialist Art Looting

As it persecuted and exterminated people, the Nazi state sought to enrich itself extensively from their property. This applied in particular to cultural assets and works of art. Adolf Hitler (“Sonderauftrag Linz”) and high-ranking Nazi functionaries such as Hermann Göring stocked their art collections with confiscated items of property. In addition to barefaced theft, objects were frequently confiscated by indirect means: for example when persecuted individuals were forced to sell their property to pay taxes (e.g. the “Judenvermögensabgabe” (“Jewish Capital Levy”) or to finance their flight into exile. For this reason, items of cultural property that were not looted directly but handed over or sold under duress are likewise considered to be cultural property epropriated as a result of Nazi persecution.

“Washington Principles” and “Joint Declaration” (Common Statement)

After the end of the Second World War, the Western Allies established the basis for confiscated property to be returned to its rightful owners. Legal provisions in the Federal Republic of Germany also resulted in return and compensation in the post-war years. Nonetheless, many victims were unable to assert their claims or were unable to enforce them in the face of resistance from many quarters. Moreover, as a result of the Cold War, the GDR and Eastern Europe were largely left out of the issue of restitution. From the mid-1970s onwards, legal claims were considered time-barred.

It was not until the end of the Cold War and German reunification that a restitution debate slowly began to pick up again: the Washington Principles were adopted at an international conference in 1998: 43 states and 13 non-governmental organisations committed to identifying works of art seized as a result of Nazi persecution and to arriving at just and fair solutions with the owners or heirs. In Germany, the Federal Government, the Länder and the national associations of local authorities, as the bodies responsible for public institutions, issued the Joint Declaration (Common Statement) in 1999: in this, they committed to working towards the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution. Although the declaration is a voluntary commitment which cannot be enforced by law, it has significant binding force in moral and political terms.

Explanatory Video: “What are just and fair solutions?”

Mit dem Laden des Videos akzeptieren Sie die Datenschutzerklärung von YouTube. Find out more
Video laden

This film can be downloaded free of charge. It may be used and distributed under the licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. The German-language videos are also available with English subtitles. © Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, bildbad

Provenance Research

Provenance research (from Latin: provenire = “to come forth, to arise”) is of key importance when it comes to identifying cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution. It is concerned with investigating the origins of a cultural object and what changes in ownership have occurred. Provenance research is one of the core tasks of every institution involved with cultural heritage.

Since 2008, the Federal Government and the Länder have funded provenance research in the area of cultural property expropriated as a result of Nazi persecution. The German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg has supported provenance research since its foundation in 2015, for example by providing funding. The Foundation also operates the Lost Art Database and the research database Proveana. The Foundation receives institutional funding from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media; this is the source of funding for its projects.

Explanatory Video on the Gurlitt Art Trove

Mit dem Laden des Videos akzeptieren Sie die Datenschutzerklärung von YouTube. Find out more
Video laden

Advisory Commission

The Advisory Commission on the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution, especially Jewish property was established in 2003 based on an “accord” between the German Federal Government, the Länder and the leading municipal associations. This Commission can be appealed to in disputes over the return of cultural property that was seized from its owners, especially Jewish victims of Nazi terror, as a result of persecution under the National Socialist regime from 30 January 1933 to 8 May 1945. In order for the Commission to take action, both sides must agree to engage in the mediation process, to have the Commission issue a recommendation where relevant, and to abide by this recommendation.

The Advisory Commission is an independent institution, and the staff at the Berlin-based office report directly to the chair of the Commission. Under labour law, the staff are employees of the German Lost Art Foundation.

Assistance with Provenance Research:

Contact in the Department of Cultural Property Losses in Europe in the 20th Century

Dr. Uwe Hart­mann

49 (0) 391 727 763 14

Sté­pha­nie Bau­me­werd

Research Advisor Looted Cultural Property
+49 (0) 391 727 763 25

Cath­leen Tas­ler

Project Coordination and Consulting for Public Institutions
+49 (0) 391 727 763 21

San­dra Lei­nert

Project Coordination and Consulting for Private Institutions and Private Citizens
49 (0) 391 727 763 31

Ti­no Seif­fert

Financial Project Management
+49 (0) 391 727 763 15

Further Content

Provenance research at the National Museum Oldenburg
Funding & Proposals
Information and documents on the funding of provenance research in the area of “Cultural property expropriated as a result of Nazi persecution”
Exhibition "Ownership obliges" at Zeppelin Museum Friedrichshafen
Publications, explanatory videos, event documentation and exhibitions on Nazi-looted cultural property
Prayer book
Restitutions / Notifications
Information on the restitution of Nazi-looted cultural property and form for restitution notifications