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Lost Art

Negotiations and expert cooperation between countries

1. Background

During the Second World War countless cultural assets were destroyed or looted by German soldiers, and millions of such objects were displaced between different countries.

As far as possible, stolen art objects found in Germany have been returned to the countries where they rightfully belong. For example, in 2005 the painting “Cavalry Battle,” of Russian provenance but located in Germany, was identified, partly with the help of Lost Art, and returned to Russia within a few months.

With regard to objects that have not yet been restituted the Federal Government is working to effect their return. The Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media is responsible for negotiations with Russia, while talks with other states are overseen by the Federal Foreign Office. Repatriation negotiations are based mainly on international law, and specifically on the Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1907 (Hague IV), which for example prohibits looting (Art. 47 Hague IV), protects private property, and forbids the confiscation, destruction or damaging of works of art (Art. 56 Hague IV). These rules apply to both publicly and privately owned cultural assets (Art. 46, 56 Hague IV).

Differing from this constellation of international law are cases in which cultural assets were taken by private individuals (including Allied soldiers).

The former Magdeburg Coordination Center has compiled a Looted Art Checklist (PDF, 594 KB) that sets out the most important immediate measures to be taken in the event that cultural assets removed during war resurface and are offered for example to former owners or cultural heritage institutions.

In recent years numerous cultural assets that had been removed due to war have been identified, partly with the help of the Lost Art Database, and returned to their rightful owners. Here are just a few examples:

In 2002 the Jewish Museum in Berlin identified the painting “Jerusalem” by Lesser Ury as a war-related loss from Görlitz via the Lost Art Database when the object was offered to the museum for purchase; following legal proceedings the painting is now back in Görlitz.

In mid-2002 a Dujardin painting was returned to Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. In May 2005 a late Gothic wooden figure was returned to Stiftskirche Kleve, where it had been a pulpit figure until the church was destroyed. A Canadian soldier had recovered the figure from the ruin in 1945 and taken it away with him. His son contacted the former Magdeburg Coordination Center and immediately indicated his willingness to return the object; in cooperation with the local state and ecclesiastical offices the figure was repatriated in May 2005. In October 2005 two books from Armenia were returned to Germany thanks to the efforts of the former Magdeburg Coordination Center and in cooperation with the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. It was the wish of the widow of a soldier who had found the books in the combat pack of a fallen German soldier during the Battle of Stalingrad that these books should be returned to Germany. As library stamps pointed to the then Reich Ministry of Forestry the books were handed over to the Federal Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection. In late 2005 several paintings that had been taken from Pirmasens during the war were recorded in the Lost Art Database; three of these objects were restituted to Germany from the USA in February 2006. In January 2007 the painting “Pfalzgraf Friedrich Michael von Pfalz-Zweibrücken-Birkenfeld“ by Johann Nepomuk Reuling was returned from France to Historisches Museum der Pfalz in Speyer: The painting, which was registered in the Lost Art Database, was identified as a war-related loss from Speyer immediately before it was to be auctioned off in Paris in April 2006. The museum, the Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, the Federal Foreign Office, the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the German Embassy, a lawyer and the former Magdeburg Coordination Center jointly succeeded in having the painting taken out of the planned auction in time. In subsequent negotiations the museum was able  to regain the painting with assistance from third parties. In the spring of 2010 the former Coordination Center received information that the painting “Dog with White Horse“ by William Cole, which was listed in the Lost Art Database, was in private hands. The painting had been registered at as a war-related loss by the Berlin National Gallery years earlier. The Coordination Center immediately established contact between the involved parties. Ultimately, the painting was restored to the National Gallery in the fall of 2010. Since 2015 the Lost Art Database has been run by the Lost Art Foundation, into which the former Coordination Center was integrated.

A comprehensive overview of objects repatriated or returned since 1945 can be found for example in the volume “Kulturgüter im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Verlagerung – Auffindung – Rückführung” edited by Uwe Hartmann and released in 2007, which was the fourth book in the publication series of the former Magdeburg Coordination Center.


2. Countries

Russia: After the end of the Second World War millions of German artworks, books and archival materials were taken to the Soviet Union. Many cultural assets were returned to the former GDR in the 1950s; however, items of German provenance including over 200,000 works of art, over four million books, and archival materials spanning three kilometers of shelf space still remain in Russia today.

The Deutsch-sowjetischer Vertrag über gute Nachbarschaft, Partnerschaft und Zusammenarbeit (German-Soviet Treaty on Good-Neighborliness, Partnership and Cooperation) (PDF, 316 KB), signed in 1990, is one of several treaties and agreements applying to repatriation negotiations between Germany and Russia. Article 16 II of this treaty states that lost or unlawfully removed artworks that are located in the respective territory should be returned to their owner or their owner’s legal successor. This aim was reaffirmed by both states two years later in article 15 of the Deutsch-russisches Abkommen über kulturelle Zusammenarbeit (German-Russian Agreement on Cultural Cooperation), concluded in 1992.

The aforementioned agreements from 1990 and 1992 are compliant with international law, e.g. with the Hague IV Convention. This is in contrast to the federal law on cultural assets brought to the USSR as a result of the Second World War and located on the territory of the Russian Federation (known as the Looted Art Act(PDF, 9 MB)) adopted by the Russian Federation in 1998 and confirmed by the Russian constitutional court on July 20, 1999. This law aims to gain compensatory restitution for Russian losses and in Art. 6 declares cultural assets of German provenance located in Russia—excluding cultural assets belonging to religious institutions or those that were confiscated due to Nazi persecution—to be the property of the Russian people.

There have been successful German-Russian negotiations, for example on the return of the choir window panes from St. Marienkirche in Frankfurt/Oder; for the majority of objects of German provenance located in Russia however no solution has yet been found.

Various initiatives have been launched at the German-Russian expert level in recent years; noteworthy examples include the Deutsch-Russischer Museumsdialog (German-Russian Museum Dialog) and the Deutsch-Russischer Bibliotheksdialog (German-Russian Library Dialog). Within these two dialogs the former Magdeburg Coordination Center has for example made the offer of German-Russian database cooperation on the Lost Art Database in order to internationally support Russian efforts to establish transparency regarding Russian losses.

That these many activities at the expert level have had a positive impact especially on the political level was apparent for example at the opening of the “Merovingians” exhibition in Moscow in 2007, on the occasion of which the state culture secretary Neumann and the Russian culture minister Sokolov continued their governmental negotiations.

Poland: Among the items at the center of German-Polish negotiations are what are known as the “Berlinka.” This collection of significant objects has been in Polish possession since the end of the Second World War and includes medieval manuscripts, autographs by e.g. Luther and Goethe, and original scores by composers such as Beethoven and Mozart, among other things. The objects were relocated from the Prussian State Library in Berlin to Silesia during the war; following the Potsdam Treaty and the associated redrawing of the border the location of these objects was in Polish territory.

Negotiations between Germany and Poland are also based on article  28—and here in particular par. (3)—of the Vertrag zwischen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und der Republik Polen über gute Nachbarschaft und freundschaftliche Zusammenarbeit (Treaty of Good Neighborship and Friendly Cooperation between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Poland) of June 17, 1991: “Article 28: (...)

(2) The parties shall each tend with particular care to the sites and cultural assets on their territories that attest to the historical events, cultural and scientific achievements and traditions of the other party, and provide free and unhindered access to these sites and cultural assets or advocate for such access where it cannot be directed by government authority. The aforementioned sites and cultural assets are under the protection of the laws of the respective contracting party. The parties shall implement joint initiatives in this field in the spirit of understanding and reconciliation. (3) In that same spirit the parties shall aim to resolve the issues relating to cultural assets and archival materials, beginning with individual cases.”

Ukraine: Negotiations between Germany and Ukraine have generally seen positive outcomes:

For example, in 1997 the Federal Archive returned 3,890 photographs to the Ukraine that had been stolen by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, taken to the USA after the end of the war, and handed over by the USA to the Federal Archive in the 1960s. In 2008 the remaining 246 images identified as looted art were returned to Ukraine. In 1998 and 2003 the Federal Archive moreover gifted three feature films and 27 documentary movies to Ukraine as part of an inventory clearance.

In November 2001 Ukraine returned the archive of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, which contains 400 autographs and prints by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, among other items. Three years later, Ukrainian President Kuchma returned etchings from the inventory of the Dresdner Kupferstichkabinett to Germany that had been taken during the war. And in the spring of 2011 Foreign Minister Westerwelle presented Ukrainian Foreign Minister Gryshchenko with several Easter eggs that had been taken to Germany from the State Museum in Kiev during the war.

At the expert level, a German-Ukrainian database cooperation on the Lost Art Database was established in 2003 in order to assist the Ukrainian side in its efforts to establish transparency regarding Ukrainian losses. This database cooperation has since been steadily expanded; Lost Art now contains reports on over 10,300 missing Ukrainian cultural assets from 14 Ukrainian cultural heritage institutions.

German-Ukrainian dialog was intensified for example during a meeting on July 19, 2011 at the former Magdeburg Coordination Center. (Download (PDF, 188 KB)). The Lost Art Foundation, which incorporates the former Coordination Center, has been continuing this dialog since 2015.

Armenia: In the course of repatriation negotiations between Germany and Armenia, in 1998 the Armenian side initially restituted 575 German items including sheet music, books and archival materials, among them some highly significant items. A further 18,000 books were repatriated to Germany in August 2000.

Additional Information

Kulturgüter im Zweiten Weltkrieg Band 4: Kulturgüter im Zweiten Weltkrieg

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