Claims Conference President Julius Berman announced that a new report shows that 15 years after the first international agreement regarding restitution of Nazi-era looted art, most countries have made little progress toward returning stolen cultural items to their rightful owners. A survey of 50 countries by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) shows that two-thirds of the nations that have endorsed agreements regarding research, publicity and claims for Nazi-era looted art have done little or nothing to implement those pacts.
The Claims Conference/WJRO reviewed activity over the past 15 years regarding the identification of artworks, Judaica, and other cultural property plundered from Jews by the Nazis and their allies.While there have been some positive developments since the 2009 Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference, only one-third of the participating nations have made major or substantial progress towards implementing the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art (endorsed by 44 countries in 1998) and the Terezin Declaration (endorsed by 47 countries in 2009). All of the countries are signatories to the Code of Ethics for Museums of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which calls upon museums to establish the full provenance of items in their collections, but only a minority of museums has actually implemented this Code.
The Claims Conference/WJRO website about art restitution also has information about Claims Conference/WJRO activity regarding the restitution of art and cultural items. Projects include digitization of original Nazi looting records, compilation of those records from far-flung archives, workshops to train provenance researchers, work with various governments, and a survey of U.S. museums that showed that only a small number had adequately researched relevant collections.
“As we approach 70 years since the end of World War II, and 15 years since the Washington Conference, action and restitution must take the place of talks and agreements,” said Julius Berman. “Governments, museums and dealers must research their collections, publicize their findings and establish a claims process for recovering family treasures. We have identified the issues at hand and initiated programs to foster research and restitution. Those who have the art objects must work to return what is not rightfully theirs.”
“Without full and open provenance research and transparent claims processes, artworks with questionable histories will continue to be a stain on the reputations of governments and owners,” said Gideon Taylor, WJRO Chair of Operations. “We also need an international dedication to locating Jewish holy and ritual items and either restoring them to the communities from which they originated, or to making sure that they are being treated with the respect and seriousness they deserve.”
The Claims Conference/WJRO will present its findings on September 11 at the Museum & Politics Conference hosted by ICOM-Germany, ICOM-Russia, and ICOM-United States that is being held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in conjunction with the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage Museum.
The report urges that an International Association of Provenance Researchers be formed to guide museums toward more actively and professionally investigating the histories of items in their collections.
Such an association can create standards and guidelines for the field; promote professional training; certify researchers; establish specialized sub-groups (e.g., on Judaica); and ensure greater communication among provenance researchers worldwide in a field in which the various objects, archival sources, and knowledge are widely scattered geographically.
The Claims Conference/WJRO has begun discussions with the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress and looks forward to working with the International Council of Museums, the European Shoah Legacy Institute, and otherorganizations in the field of provenance research to help initiate the creation of an international professional association.