“Lasting historical and moral obligation”

Germany and the United States reaffirm pledge to return Nazi-looted art to owners.

Monika Grütters und Stuart Eizenstat
Monika Grütters und Stuart Eizenstat dpa

Berlin (dpa) - Germany and the United States signed a declaration during an international conference in Berlin on Monday that reiterated their commitment to returning art stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners.

The agreement recommits both sides to returning Nazi-looted artworks to the heirs of their previous owners, or - should that not be possible - finding another fair solution. It comes 20 years after guidelines known as the WashingtonPrinciples first set out international obligations towards the victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs in 1998.

Some 1,000 experts were expected to attend the conference, which runs until Wednesday, to discuss progress on the guidelines.

US businessman Ronald Lauder, who is president of the World Jewish Congress, is expected to attend the conference. Lauder recently accused Germany yet again of dragging its heels in the search for Nazi-looted art.

After the crimes of the Nazi era, Germany has a lasting historical and moral obligation to the victims and their descendants, German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said.

The Washington Principles, agreed in December 1998 at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, state that steps should be taken "expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution" when Nazi-looted art is uncovered.

German-French colonialism expert Benedicte Savoy was also expected to address the conference.

The Berlin conference is being organized by the German Lost Art Foundation based in the city of Magdeburg and is being funded from Minister Gruetters' budget.

Gilbert Lupfer, a member of the board of the German Lost Art Foundation and the conference host, says that Germany is on the right path, but acknowledges the need for further improvement."Provenance research must be intensified further, professionalized and become better networked internationally," Lupfer told dpa.

This is a core aim of the conference, he says - as is persuading small museums, private collectors and art dealers to become more strongly engaged in clarifying provenance questions.

Just how closely Germany is being watched regarding these issues became clear a few years ago, in 2012, when a horde of artworks were found in an apartment in Munich's Schwabing district.

The apartment was that of Cornelius Gurlitt, a loner and son of a known Nazi art dealer. German justice authorities confiscated the priceless collection suspected of having been stolen art. The "Nazi treasure worth billions" made headlines around the world.

Of the 1,500 artworks, experts were able to clearly identify only six as having been stolen by the Nazis. But at least four of the stolen paintings have been returned to the heirs of the original Jewish owners, including Max Liebermann's "Two Riders on the Beach" and Henri Matisse's "Seated Woman."
 
The Washington conference, called then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, laid the foundations for such provenance efforts. Forty-four states, 12 non-governmental organizations and the Vatican signed the accord.

"Washington was a revolution," former US diplomat Stuart Eizenstat has written in a magazine published by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation devoted to the subject.

Unterzeichner des Washingtoner Prinzipien Vertrags
Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung