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US pushes new guidelines for retrieving Nazi-looted art after failed efforts 

Defense Visual Information Distribution Service | Getarchive

The U.S. Department of State released a new set of guidelines outlining how countries should research and reinstate Nazi-looted art. It was published on March 5, the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles on Nazi Confiscated Art pact. 

Only seven of the 47 pledged nations have been successful, according to a report done by the World Jewish Restitution Organization. The 15-item list was published after various nations said that the principles lacked clarity on what should be done with the artwork.

 “There is a recognized urgent need to work on ways to achieve a just and fair solution to the issue of spoliated art and cultural property where prewar owners or their heirs, both individuals and legal persons cannot be identified, while recognizing there is no universal model for this issue and recognizing the previous Jewish or other ownership of such cultural assets,” the Department of State said.

The Nazi plunder, also known as the Raubkunst, was a 12-year effort of organized looting by Nazis in order to get rid of “degenerate” art throughout Europe. The works were stored in underground tunnels, caves and mines. 

By the end of World War II, over 20% of Europe’s art had been stolen and hidden by Nazis. The works were stored in underground tunnels, caves and mines. Despite efforts to hide artwork from being looted, they ended up in private collections of people that were of high Nazi authority.

In December 1998, the legally nonbinding Washington Conference Principles were adopted by 47 nations. The newly published guidelines define art as “cultural property of victims of the Holocaust” and include paintings, scrolls, manuscripts, records and musical instruments.

Under the best practices, with the understanding that there are differing laws in different nations, it has been clarified that the found artwork should either go back to the pre-war owner of it or to their heirs and that it should all be open to public records and that compensation should not be sought out for doing so. The document was endorsed by 22 countries.

In the last six months, the U.S. returned 10 works belonging to the family of Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian-Jewish cabaret performer who died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. Some parts of his collection were reclaimed by museums and collections before they were returned.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a conference to reflect on the Washington Principles’ 25th anniversary and announce the revised guidelines. 

“Today, too many governments, museums, dealers, galleries and individuals still resist restitution efforts while heirs confront staggering legal and financial barriers as they go up against opponents whose resources vastly outmatch their own,” Blinken said.

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