Statement of the Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e. V. on considerations to reform the restitution of Nazi looted property

The board of the Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e. V. has taken note of the recent statements by the Federal Government, the Länder and the leading municipal associations on the reform of the Advisory Commission on Nazi Looted Property as well as the demands made by the Commission (Memorandum) and would hereby like to contribute its own structural considerations.

The Arbeitskreis, which has been in existence since 2000, unites almost 500 international experts for the scientific research of the seizure of cultural property as a central prerequisite for restitution to the rightful owners. The work of its members covers the clarification of cultural property losses due to asymmetrical power relations, including Nazi persecution-related confiscations, expropriations in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the German Democratic Republic, as well as the confiscation of cultural property in colonial contexts.

In the coalition agreement 2021-2025 “Mehr Fortschritt wagen” (“Daring more progress”), the governing parties agreed to strengthen the Advisory Commission on the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution, in particular Jewish property. In the view of the Arbeitskreis, the reform plans are very welcome, but there is a need for further action beyond the Advisory Commission’s memorandum with regard to the structures and procedures for preparing restitution decisions.

Over the past two decades, the structures created by the federal, state, and local governments have contributed to the systematic examination of collections and have made numerous restitutions possible, in numbers far beyond the cases before the Commission.

Regrettably, however, these measures have not led to transparent documentation and valid decision-making processes. The 23 cases often cited as being the subject of dispute before the Advisory Commission are therefore in no way representative of the work that has been done in this area to date and the large number of restitutions that are based on proactive research work. On its website, the Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste currently speaks of just under 7,500 museum objects and almost 25,000 library items and archival materials that have been restituted since the Washington Conference in 1998. However, the actual numbers are even higher, as there is no obligation to report and no central register.

For these reasons, we repeatedly urge transparent communication of the results of the research and the restitutions that have taken place, as well as the implementation of structural measures to support and sustain provenance research, such as central institutions for proactive and professional tracing of heirs, for ongoing quality assurance and permanent evaluation of the assessment criteria, and for transparent, verifiable proceedings. Sustainable measures support the bodies and institutions in fulfilling their responsibilities and in developing the “just and fair solutions” agreed upon in the Washington Principles in dialogue with claimants.

According to our decades of experience, the use of proven research skills and expertise significantly accelerates the restitution procedures of institutions preserving cultural property. For this reason, we demand that the Federal Government, the Länder and the local authorities separate research, the evaluation of findings and decision-making when dealing with suspect cases, and that the Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e. V. be involved in the reform deliberations on the restitution of looted Nazi property.

Reform der Limbach-Kommission für NS-Raubkunst (WDR, 4. September 2023)

Zum Stand der Aufarbeitung von NS-Raubkunstfällen – Meike Hopp im Gespräch (deutschlandfunk, 9. September 2023)