Eleven action points proposed for better implementation of Washington Principles

Picture: HE Ambassador Eizenstat addressing the CIVS conference in Paris on 15 November 2019

On 15 November 2019, the Special Advisor for Holocaust Issues to the US government, Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, delivered a keynote speech at the French government’s conference commemorating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the French Commission pour l’indemnisation des victimes de spoliations (“CIVS”).

Eizenstat, who has long campaigned for more action to encourage all actors in the international art world to find “just and fair solutions”, called for the following eleven action points to be implemented by governments across the globe. The action points are designed to boost the framework concerning artworks that were looted from mostly Jewish owners subject to persecution by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

  1. The looting of artworks by the Nazis and their collaborators must be understood as a much wider concept than “someone coming into your apartment and grabbing a piece of art from the wall”. The concept of looting must specifically include any forced sale, sale under duress and flight art sale, as well as further categories of ‘dispossession’.
  2. Provenance research is hard work and requires human resources, but is must be done. By way of positive recent examples, France has given the CIVS more resources, Germany is allocating money to private collections, private museums and private dealers for provenance research and Israel has started a new national programme for provenance research in its museums. However, more needs to be done.
  3. Repositories of information should be published to assist provenance research.
  4. Nations should diligently research and audit their collections. For instance, it is not enough for France to simply look at one source; it will require a holistic approach, checking the Jeu de Paume, the Louvre, the Pompidou and every other public museum and hopefully any other private museum as well to determine if the collections include red-flag artworks.
  5. Countries that have restrictive deaccession laws thus preventing restitutions must change these, as it is not right that such deaccession restrictions should bar the return of artworks to the heirs of dispossessed owners.
  6. The Washington Principles should apply not just to public museums but also to private collections.
  7. There must be one point of reference only for claimants in each country, so that claimants don’t have to go from one agency to another in search of the government agency.
  8. There should be no time limit on bringing claims where the location of the artwork was not previously known.
  9. All decisions by ad-hoc restitution panels should be posted on the internet.
  10. While the EU has been behind the curve, in January 2019, the EU Parliament passed landmark legislation recognizing the Washington Principles and urging the European Commission and member states to engage seriously in this area.
  11. Heirless art, where no living heir can be identified, is directly covered by the Washington Principles. Given improved technology, including sophisticated databases, it is worth to give it “one last try” and post heirless art on the internet.
    Before Ambassador Eizenstat took to the lectern to formulate his roadmap to a better implementation of the Washington Principles, former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had recalled his role during the establishment of CIVS under French President Jacques Chirac.

Before Ambassador Eizenstat took to the lectern to formulate his roadmap to a better implementation of the Washington Principles, former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had recalled his role during the establishment of CIVS under French President Jacques Chirac.

Picture: Former French PM Lionel Jospin

The French government is one of only five European governments to have set up an institutional framework allowing for determinations or recommendations related to artworks that were looted between 1933 and 1945 that have found their way into the collections of public institutions or museums in those countries. The five countries are France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Till Vere-Hodge