Skip to content

Architect of Washington Principles takes stock

On 26-28 November 2018, Germany hosted a conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the Washington Principles. Twenty years earlier, 44 governments had participated in the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets and endorsed eleven principles for dealing with “Nazi-confiscated art”. The most commonly-cited such principle calls for steps to be taken expeditiously to achieve a “just and fair solution” in relation to artworks confiscated by the Nazis.

Criticism has been levelled at the Washington Principles, not least because (i) they are not legally binding; (ii) they were devised for public institutions and museums only; (iii) some of the terms used remain vague; and (iv) they focus on artworks “confiscated by the Nazis” when other forms of dispossession during the Nazi dictatorship are equally yet to be resolved in a “just and fair” manner. Conversely, compromises were no doubt required to ensure that the 44 participating governments remained “on board” at the conclusion of the conference and vague language might, in some instances, be conducive to arriving at case-by-case resolutions for specific red-flag artworks.

Some ten years after their adoption, 46 governments worldwide re-affirmed the Washington Principles. The Terezin Declaraion of 2009 sought to address some of the criticisms of the principles, for instance by aiming to widen their application to private collectors: “We reaffirm our support of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and we encourage all parties including public and private institutions and individuals to apply them as well.”

Some twenty years after the adoption of the Washington Principles, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat who is widely-regarded as their main architect, made a number of recommendations to improve international restitution efforts. These recommendations include:

  1. All countries that have adopted the Washington Principles must do their “homework” and fully implement them.
  2. All countries must recognize that forced sales of art, i.e. sales under duress, constitute a form of plundering Jewish valuables (as some countries already do).
  3. Public museums must research their collections’ provenance and publish the results of the research on the internet.
  4. A sufficient number of provenance researchers must be employed by museums and public collections to deal with the issue of Nazi-looted artworks.
  5. Private collectors and collections must be compelled to deal with the issue of Nazi-looted artworks in their possession.
  6. The art market, including dealerships and auction houses, must follow Sotheby’s and Christie’s lead in New York and London and institutionalise provenance research of all art that is being sold.
  7. Ad-hoc panels, including the German Beratende Kommission, must publish their recommendations/decisions in full, including the reasoning behind the recommendation/decision in question.
  8. There have been some positive developments in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, but there have also been some major setbacks in those three countries, which must be addressed.

– For instance, the Netherlands have introduced a “balancing” test, which is supposed to weigh up the interests of the heirs against that of the museums in question. Such a test is “totally contrary to the Washington Principles”.

– Germany must overcome the inconsistent handling of claims as a consequence of having cultural policy decision-makers at various levels (federal, state and local museum and municipality levels). In addition, the Beratende Kommission has thus far only heard 15 cases in 15 years, clearly not enough.

  1. However, other countries have a much, much worse track record than the three countries mentioned above. A lot more work needs to be done in these countries.

– Hungary possesses major works of art looted on its territory during World War II and has not restituted them despite being repeatedly asked to address the matter. The current Hungarian government has refused to return these artworks to their rightful owners. Some museums in Hungary have researched the provenance of works in their collections but that research has not been made public. And while there is a mechanism in place to facilitate the restitution of artworks in public museums, only claimants of non-Jewish origin have received any works back to date.

– Russia has not restituted any Nazi-looted art, nor has it established a process for the identification or handling of claims.

– Poland has refused to engage with the Dutch government, which has a list of artworks that are situated in Poland but once belonged to Jewish citizens who have since emigrated from Poland to the Netherlands. It would be useful for joint Dutch-Polish cooperation in provenance research to clarify this situation, but to date the Polish government insists they will only handle Polish artworks that had been taken out of Poland.

– Italy must stop ignoring the Washington Principles. The country only seems to care about the artworks which the Italian state feels it lost, rather than the artworks looted from persecuted persons during the Nazi era. In addition, Italy should implement the recommendations made by the Anselmi Commission in 2001 (available here:

– Spain has taken no steps since 1998 to implement the Washington Principles. Its approach is exemplified by the handling of the Cassirer claim to Pissarro’s “Rue Saint-Honore, Apres-Midi, Effet de Pluie”, which is at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, which Spain considers to be a private museum and thereby not covered by the Washington Principles.

Despite the pitfalls of the current system, it is worth remembering that the Washington Principles represent the first international accord on this subject-matter since Allied governments pledged to reverse Nazi looting in all its guises in 1943. Indeed, the years between 1943 and 1998 were characterised by a great deal of intergovernmental inaction. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the international art market, which enabled many looted treasures to change hands during that period.

The legacy of these developments poses significant challenges today for collectors, museums, dealers, auction houses, claimants and their respective advisors who together must find a way to untangle history taking account of a variety of complex analyses and considerations.

Till Vere-Hodge