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Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art

In 1998, pursuant to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art concluded that year, the Austrian government initiated an art restitution program that covered art in museums and institutions owned by the federal government, with provincial and municipal governments enacting their own laws.  Austria was one of the few countries that incorporated the Washington Principles into its national legislation.  The country has restituted more than 32,000 objects, among them renowned artworks such as the Rothschild family’s art collection in the Vienna Museum for Fine Art and several works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.  The art restitution law stipulated that an advisory panel recommend restoration to the rightful owner based on research conducted in federal museums and institutions by the Commission on Provenance Research.

Under the 2001 U.S.-Austrian Washington Agreement, the Austrian government agreed to undertake its best efforts to expand the jurisdiction of the country’s 1998 art restitution law, which initially covered only federal institutions, to the provincial and municipal levels.  The program is ongoing.  Problems remain regarding privately owned collections, which are subject to the principle of good faith acquisition.

Heirless art objects, in accordance with the federal art restitution law, are to be transferred to the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism.  In 2006, the National Fund posted an online database of some of these heirless objects to allow additional claimants to come forward; the database now holds more than 9,000 entries.  In Vienna, the 1996 Mauerbach auction of unclaimed Jewish-owned art resulted in a fund of $13.5 million, used primarily to benefit needy Austrian Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.

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Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art

About 100,000 works of art were stolen from French Jews or Jews who had fled to France before the German occupation, according to estimates by French authorities.  From 1945 to 1949, roughly 60,000 of the artworks were returned to France, of which about 45,000 were then claimed by their owners.  Additional works of art have been found at a slow pace after that time, and the location of the remaining 40,000 works of art is unclear.  Of the recovered works, most of the unclaimed pieces were sold at auction.  The French state kept about 2,100 of the highest quality paintings and entrusted them to museums, particularly the Louvre, but specially designated them “Musées nationaux recuperation,” or MNR (National Museums Recovery).  Experts say it is unclear how those pieces were chosen and how many might have been looted or sold under duress.

Millions of books were taken from France by the Nazis.  Most that were in the zones of the western Allies after the war were returned to France, and many of these books were returned to their original owners – 172,812 to 1,660 individual owners, mostly Jews, and 103,517 to 392 mostly Jewish institutions.

France endorsed the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and is one of only five of the 42 countries that attended the Washington Conference to set up a commission to address the restitution of and/or compensation for art objects looted and displaced during the Nazi years.  CIVS has responsibility for both restitution and compensation, primarily providing compensation to individual victims or their heirs.

For reparation measures, if a specific work of art cannot be found, compensation is provided based on the estimated financial value of the work at the time it was looted.  Through the end of 2018, CIVS had recommended compensation totaling approximately $55 million.

Few artworks have been returned, in part because France has not yet passed a law permitting state museums to deaccession objects in their collections.  In cases where the property in question is included on the list of MNR works that were returned from Germany after the war, restitution is easier, and such property must be returned to its rightful owners.  Claims must be filed with the archives departments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Museums.

Critics contend that restitution has been haphazard and that French museums have been slow or even loath to return Nazi-looted artwork.  An April 2018 Ministry of Culture public report identified 2,008 cultural works (primarily MNR) with no identified owner and acknowledged that the current policy of art restitution was inefficient and lacking ambition, coordination, leadership, and visibility.  In April 2019, the office La Mission de recherche et de restitution des biens culturels spoliés (the Mission for Research and Restitution of Spoliated Cultural Property) was officially created within the Ministry of Culture.  The five-person staff, with an annual budget of approximately $225,000, is engaged in seeking out the rightful owners or heirs of artworks, including those in museums and galleries, stolen or sold under duress during the country’s occupation (not only those that are MNR).

In the spring of 2019, the French government transferred the authority for final decisions on art restitution claims from the Ministry of Culture to CIVS to address criticism that museum officials would be reluctant to hand over valuable artwork.  The Ministry of Culture also said it would take a more active role in the search and restitution of stolen property.

On April 1, 2019, Foreign Minister Le Drian attended a ceremony returning artwork to its pre‑WWII owners at the French consulate in New York.  During his remarks, he reiterated that the French government had committed to “accelerate and intensify the work of identifying and restituting to their owners” looted works of art.



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