Countries Use ‘Nazi Tactics’ To Avoid Returning Art Stolen During WWII

Despite agreeing in 1989 to reunite art with Holocaust survivors, some countries still drag their feet.

US soldiers carrying some of the priceless collection of paintings discovered in an Austrian castle.
Keystone / Getty Images

Despite agreeing in 1989 to reunite art with Holocaust survivors, some countries still drag their feet.

A meeting of art experts and multiple organizations was held back in 1989 with the purpose of returning over half a million pieces of art stolen by Nazis from Jews during World War II. This effort was spearheaded by an American diplomat named Stuart Eizenstat who created a document through this meeting called the “Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.”

The Daily Beast is reporting that if everyone had complied with the recommended principles, over 600,000 pieces of art (currently held by governments, museums, and private collectors) would have been returned to its rightful owner or their heirs.

But in a new meeting in Berlin, hosted by the German Lost Art Foundation to measure the success of the project, it seems things are a mixed bag. Eizenstat is attending the conference to report that the countries with the most stolen art are doing the least to return the art to its rightful owners.

Eizenstat is calling on Spain, Italy, Russia, Hungary, and Poland to do the right thing.

“We must candidly confront the unfulfilled promises we solemnly made.”

The American diplomat says that Hungary and Poland are the worst offenders in this matter, as they have been “repeatedly asked” to return pieces of art in their possession which have proven legal ownership with the families of Jewish Holocaust survivors.

Italy is interested in getting something in return for doing the right thing in the form of Italian items that have been sold to American museums. He says Spain has taken no steps, and that Russia doesn’t even have the means to process the requests to match up art with its proven owners.

Austria, Holland, and Germany have gotten high marks from Eizenstat, as he says they have made efforts to reunite the works of art with its legal owners.

Arthur Brand, who is known as the “Indiana Jones” of pilfered art, says that he is astounded at the lengths that some of these countries will go to in order to hold on to stolen art. Artsy recently sang the praises of Brand for his big successes.

“Brand most recently returned a 1,600-year-old mosaic to its rightful owners in Cyprus, but he is perhaps best known for finding two bronze statues called Hitler’s Horses and around $6 million worth of Nazi-looted art in 2015.”

Brand now calls the techniques that these countries are using to hold onto the loot “Nazi tactics.” He explains that the Nazis created fake bills of sale to say that the Jewish families sold the artwork to the German government as they were taken away to the camps. Brand says that these reluctant governments are now using these fake bills of sale to justify holding onto the pieces.

“The Germans started stealing from Jews in 1933. They wanted to sell many of these pieces on auctions to get money for the German state, but they could not say they were stolen on an auction bill, so what did the Germans do? They made it appear legitimate. Jewish collectors and art dealers were given an invented tax penalty bills, and in order to pay them they had to give up the paintings.”

He explains that the governments are playing a waiting game, knowingly using the fake Nazi bills of sale to delay the return until people seeking their family artwork ultimately die.

“Even today many countries and many museums use the Nazi tactics and hope that they can prolong it until these people die or they have forgotten.”

Brand explains that there are current owners who unwittingly bought stolen works of art who do want to do the right thing, particularly now that Christie’s and Sotheby’s won’t list works for sale if there is a claim against it.

“Here the buyers are innocent, so they go to the Jewish family and work together to sell the pieces together and split the profits.”

But there might be a bright spot at this time which will force the hands of some who continue to hold onto art stolen from Jews by the Nazis.

The city of Aberdeen, Scotland, is set to approve a new five-year policy which says that it will be illegal to display these stolen pieces of art anywhere in Aberdeen, says the Aberdeen Journals Limited.

Council culture spokeswoman Marie Boulton says that getting this policy on the books will make it easier to take pieces which are loaned because there will be no gray area. If there is a claim on a piece, it will not be shown in Aberdeen.

“The important thing is that when we approve this policy we will be able to take more pieces on loan. We have some of the most prestigious artwork in the UK and even perhaps in Europe so policies like these are to keep that collection protected.”