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Release of Best Practices for restitution of Nazi-confiscated art
June 10, 2024

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has welcomed the release of Best Practices for the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, which are the result of international collaboration on effective steps to implement the restitution of Holocaust-era art, books, and other cultural objects in line with the landmark 1998 Washington Conference Principles. The Best Practices reinforce the Washington Principles, including by recognizing that forced sales happened and underscoring the urgency of resolving remaining claims for property, whether held in public or private collections.

The Best Practices were prepared by a network of Special Envoys and Representatives for Holocaust Issues from 14 countries and were announced at the 25th Anniversary of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art: Best Practices and the Way Forward event. Cosponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), the hybrid event was held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC on March 5 and attended by special envoys, ambassadors, senior government officials, and NGOs.

In pre-recorded remarks aired at the event, Secretary Blinken emphasized that millions of works of art and cultural property stolen by the Nazis still have not been returned to their owners, who often face legal and financial barriers in the process of reclaiming their property. The Best Practices, the Secretary said, will bolster restitution efforts by more precisely defining what is considered Nazi-looted art and remedying processes that favor current possessors over rightful owners. Observing that Holocaust distortion is on the rise, he said that efforts to resolve restitution claims are more important than ever and he encouraged other countries to join the United States in endorsing the Best Practices.

Ambassador (ret.) Stuart E. Eizenstat, the driving force behind the Washington Principles and now Special Advisor to the Secretary of State on Holocaust Issues, gave keynote remarks on the lasting impact of the Principles and how the Best Practices will make a difference on the restitution of Nazi-looted art and for Holocaust survivors. Other speakers included Gideon Taylor, President of the World Jewish Congress and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany; Ellen Germain, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, U.S. Department of State; Sara J. Bloomfield, Director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Colette Avital, Chairperson, Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. Leading international experts participated in a panel discussion about the future of art restitution.

"Thank you to the World Jewish Restitution Organization for convening this conference with the State Department to mark the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. Thank you to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for hosting us, said Blinken. He further commented:

I’m grateful to all gathered in support of this conference’s mission: representatives of governments endorsing the Washington Principles and these Best Practices. Families working relentlessly for justice. Academics, museum officials, and legal minds committed to making restitution of Nazi-confiscated art a reality for the survivors and their families.

I’d particularly like to thank Ambassador Stu Eizenstat, the remarkable driving force behind the Washington Principles and so many other restitution efforts… and our Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Ellen Germain… and Gideon Taylor and his team at the WJRO.

In the 1960s, a teenager named Simon Goodman visited the San Diego Museum of Art with his father. Simon pointed out a beautiful 17th century work by a famed Dutch Master, only to have his dad tell him: that painting used to be our family’s.

A generation earlier, Nazis robbed Simon’s grandfather of his possessions, including his vast art collection, before deporting him and murdering him in a Gestapo prison.

Countless Jewish families endured similar experiences.

The Holocaust was not only the largest genocide in history. It was one of the largest mass thefts in history.

The Nazis seized and exploited Jewish businesses, bank accounts, and property – including art and cultural property – as a part of a systematic campaign to physically eradicate all vestiges of Jewish life.

The Nazis plundered museums, galleries, homes, and Jewish communities. They forced Jewish collectors to sell off their artwork at a fraction of their worth – or just stole it. Banned and auctioned off so-called “degenerate art” produced by Jews and those associated with being Jewish. Robbed Jewish families of their possessions as they marched them off to ghettos and camps.

My late stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was one of the victims of this dispossession. After the Nazis forced his family into the Bialystok ghetto, they killed Sam’s father. Soon after, Nazi forces herded the rest of the family – Sam, his mother, and his little sister Frieda – to the train station. There, a stormtrooper approached Sam’s mother and demanded she hand over her engagement ring. As soon as she wrested it from her finger, the soldiers loaded her and Frieda onto a train to Treblinka… and to their deaths.

For decades, the international community knew little about the injustice of Nazi-looted possessions, including art. Looted art hung in galleries and in homes, without challenge.

The Washington Principles, endorsed by 44 countries, began to change that.

Over the last 25 years, thousands of works of art, books, and cultural objects have been restored to their rightful owners. Several countries established claims commissions. Major auction houses and museums hired full-time staff to examine art that passed through European hands in the run-up to, and during, World War II. Institutions have been set up to archive stolen Jewish-owned art.

Those steps represent real progress. But they are not nearly enough.

Of the millions of works of art and cultural property stolen by the Nazis, countless objects still have not been returned to their owners. 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.

Family members must prove they are the true heirs. That their art was wrongly taken or subject to a forced sale. That their relatives were persecuted. That statutes of limitations do not apply – an absurd obligation to place on the descendants of people who were murdered eight decades ago.

Today, the State Department is proud to announce Best Practices to help overcome some of these hurdles. These Best Practices more precisely define what is considered Nazi-looted art. They identify solutions when provenance research is lacking. They remedy processes that favor current possessors over rightful owners. They urge countries to bolster their restitution efforts.

I thank every country that has endorsed the Best Practices. And I encourage every government that has not yet endorsed these principles to join us.

These efforts are more important than ever, as Holocaust distortion and denial are again on the rise. We have seen time and again how the individuals, groups, and societies who downplay or refute the Shoah foster antisemitism and violence against Jews. These Best Practices offer a critical tool to counter their efforts to forget, to obfuscate – by memorializing the truth about what the Nazis did, who they hurt, what they took.

Restitution cannot right all the wrongs, but it is a clear affirmation of what occurred. And it represents a small step toward giving something back to families and communities who lost everything – much of which can never be replaced.

Simon Goodman – today, a leader of restitution efforts – has never been able to recover the Dutch Master painting that once belonged to his family.

List of States endorsing the Best Practices as of March 5, 2024:

Albania, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.


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