Empty picture frames as a call for the return of paintings from the West Berlin Gemäldegalerie in Berlin-Dahlem which were previously stored at the Central Collecting Point Wiesbaden, 1953-1955


Here we offer a brief insight into the history of the returns of cultural property displaced as a result of war and the legal situation in this connection. Here you will also find a list of conventions and intergovernmental agreements.

After the Second World War

From February 1945 onwards, the Red Army Trophy Brigade focussed on “securing” cultural properties. In the months after the end of the war, transportations to the Soviet Union were systematically organised. The idea was that cultural properties were to provide compensation for the wartime losses suffered by museums and libraries there. The violent destruction of cultural properties and monuments by the Wehrmacht had taken its toll throughout the whole of Europe, as had targeted looting by German special forces.

The question of compensation (or “restitution in kind”) was discussed in the Western occupation zones at the end of the war, too. In the Wiesbaden manifesto of November 1945, American art conservation officers (“Monuments Men”) issued a statement rejecting the transfer of cultural property from German museums to the United States. In the years that followed, the items that had been transferred to the Central Collecting Points maintained by the Western allies were successively returned to the countries of origin, or else placed in trusteeship with the Federal Government of Germany.

When Josef Stalin died in 1953 and the sovereignty of the GDR was recognised in 1954, the issue of restitution was reassessed in the Soviet Union, too. From 1955 onwards, paintings were initially returned to Dresden via Berlin. Within a period of a few months from September 1958, the largest operation was carried out between the Soviet Union and the GDR to return cultural properties displaced as a result of war, involving numerous museums.

Large numbers of cultural properties are still displaced or missing. To this day, wartime losses continue to turn up in the art trade, in private households or as stray objects in German museum depots, for example. Substantial numbers of collection items are still located in the territory of the former Soviet Union. 

Legal Situation

With regard to the restitution of wartime losses, a distinction must be drawn between international law and civil law: the initial point of reference for restitution of cultural properties displaced as a result of war is international law, in particular the Hague Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1907. This prohibits pillaging (Art. 47 Hague Convention IV), protects private property and bans the confiscation, destruction or damage of works of art (Art. 56 Hague Convention IV). This legislation was underpinned and clarified by the 1954 Hague Convention and Geneva Protocol 1 of 1977. Due to the prohibition of retroactivity, however, these latter provisions are not applicable to cultural property displaced as a result of the Second World War. Nonetheless, there are several intergovernmental agreements on the restitution of wartime losses that are of key importance in this connection.

In 1998, the Russian Federation decreed by law that all cultural property transferred to the USSR as a result of the Second World War was to remain the property of the Federation, providing it was still located within its territory and was not previously in private ownership. Cases involving items that were displaced for protection to regions that belonged to another nation’s territory after the Second World War are unresolved under international law. This applies to cultural properties taken from German museums and libraries to storage depots in Silesia (now Poland), for example.

From the point of view of civil law, similar to cultural property expropriated as a result of (Nazi) persecution, claims for restitution are now regularly time-barred, regardless of the fact that the items concerned may still be owned by the claimant.

The German Lost Art Foundation documents the restitution of cultural properties displaced as a result of war. Since these restitutions are carried out on a decentralised basis and there is no obligation to report them, the compilation does not claim to be exhaustive in terms of including all returns that actually took place. We would be pleased to receive any additional information or corrections concerning restitutions!

Overview of Conventions and Intergovernmental Agreements

Further Content

An impression of a historical storage site in the exhibition “Bombensicher! Kunstversteck Weesenstein 1945” (“Bomb-proof! Weesenstein art hideout 1945”) at Weesenstein Castle near Dresden
Basics & Overview
Background information on cultural property displaced as a result of war, its documentation and return
Wartime losses represented as large-format black-and-white reproductions as part of the exhibition “Das verschwundene Museum. Die Berliner Gemälde- und Skulpturensammlungen 70 Jahre nach Kriegsende” (“The vanished museum. The Berlin painting and sculpture collections 70 years after the end of the war”) at the Bode Museum Berlin
Exhibitions, publications and explanatory videos on the subject of wartime losses