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During the Third Reich, the plunder of Jewish art collections was systematic and horrific. Dr Donna Yates explores the recovery of this stolen art.
Perhaps the most well known case of what we’re calling recovery is the return of cultural objects taken from Jews and other persecuted people during the Second World War. These so-called Holocaust art cases are an important part of contemporary discussion about the return of art. It is important to understand both the scale of that crime and the implications that the recovery of Holocaust art has on the art market. Before and during their attempt to eradicate the Jewish people, the Nazis sought to acquire their assets and among these assets were art and other cultural objects. Indeed, many Nazi leaders, including Hitler– himself a failed art student– had a particular interest in amassing art collections.
By the first half of the 20th century, some of the world’s greatest art collections had been collected by Jewish families in what would become Nazi-controlled territories. The campaign to plunder art from Jewish collectors was systematic, and it was devastating. At the end of the war, hundreds and thousands of pieces of seized and stolen art were found in repositories in Nazi territory. In the postwar period, some 700,000 or more artworks were returned to the territories from which they were taken. They were then meant to be reunited with owners or those owners’ heirs. However, at the time, Europe was in shambles.
In many cases, the countries that received these stolen artworks were unable or unwilling to track down Jewish owners, who had either been forced to flee to other countries or continents, or to track down possible heirs of Jewish art collectors who had been murdered. Thus, thousands and thousands of artworks entered national collections or the art market with a stain on their provenance. A suspicious ownership gap. Buyers of such pieces face enduring possibilities that the true owner or heir would come forward and that a court would rule for the restitution of that piece. As you can imagine, there are many cases of dubious dealers and sellers creating false ownership histories to cover Holocaust-era gaps.
For certain pieces of art, there’s a lot of possibility for further crime. For decades, it was very difficult for owners or heirs to make recovery claims for art taken during the Second World War. The courts were not favourable to the recovery, and it was difficult to locate documents of ownership or to prove that art had been seized unlawfully or taken under duress. Indeed, it was and sometimes still is, difficult to find the stolen art in the first place. You can’t sue for the recovery of an artwork if you don’t know where it is.
Yet, starting really in the 1990s, and thanks in part to our increased capacity for information sharing due to the internet as well as changes in global thinking about the recovery of Holocaust art, we started to see some very successful recovery cases. Museums are now hiring provenance curators to specifically check their collections. And collectors are well aware of these issues. Yet, a few questions always come up in discussions of the recovery of Holocaust art, and most relate to one core ethical dilemma. Should we spend time, money, and effort trying to write a 70 or 80-year-old wrong? Most of the people involved are dead. The art is being recovered by second and third generation heirs.
Shouldn’t we let bygones be bygones so that we can heal?
But while these are legitimate questions to ask, to the families of Holocaust victims and their supporters, justice is of primary importance. Jewish art collectors collected beautiful and valuable art for the benefit of not just themselves but their families future generations. These people were stripped of everything– their assets and their lives– and they were imprisoned in unimaginable conditions or were forced to flee. Those that were not murdered were denied the right to enjoy their art during the remainder of their life and pass that art on to their children. Those who were murdered were denied everything.
No, the recovery of Holocaust art will not bring back a murdered father or grandmother, but it does allow that family member dignity, justice, and the right to pass on important possessions to their loved ones. It keeps their memory alive.

During the Third Reich, the government’s seizure of Jewish art collections was a systematic and devastating facet of the horrific genocide. Dr Donna Yates explores the recovery of this stolen art for victims and victims’ heirs in the post-war period.

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Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

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