Reclaiming lost history: 25 years of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art

The 1998 international guidelines forever changed the discourse about Nazi-confiscated art, and continue to guide the Christie’s Restitution Department today

From 30 November to 3 December 1998, representatives from 44 countries together with participants from NGOs and observers from the art market gathered in the United States capital for the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era-Assets. More than 50 years after the end of the Nazi-era, the world had yet to address the full range of issues raised by art looting during that time.

The Washington Conference was a watershed moment. It established the Washington Principles, 11 guidelines to address the ways in which Nazi-confiscated property could be returned to its rightful owners. 

The Principles provided a framework for nations to respond to issues of unresolved restitution, and the return of property confiscated during the war. They encouraged governments to identify, research and return looted works of art; they promoted transparency and the creation of a central database of relevant information and they advocated for the establishment of official commissions and processes, particularly to facilitate alternative dispute resolutions.

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Left: US Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat with Russian delegate Valery Kulishov at the opening ceremony for the Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets at the US Holocaust Museum November 30, 1998 in Washington, DC. Photo by Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo. Right: J.D. Bindenagel, Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, November 30-December 3, 1998, Proceedings

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat — the then-United States Under Secretary for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs — was the main architect of the Conference and Principles, which he organized, negotiated and drafted. 

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles, Christie’s Restitution Department is proud to host Reflecting on Restitution, a global programme of events and initiatives to honour the lasting impact of the Conference. Beginning with an inaugural exhibition at Christie’s galleries in Paris on 27 January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the programme will include in-person conversations, stories of important restitutions, virtual tours of historic sites throughout Berlin and other opportunities to exchange stories and ideas.

History erased 

‘It was the greatest cultural theft in history,’ Ambassador Eizenstat said in a recent conversation with Christie’s. ‘What the Nazis attempted to do was wipe out every element of Jewish culture — ritual objects, books and artwork.’ These stolen objects represented not just valuable treasures or personal belongings but connections to a past that the Nazis wanted to erase.

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Art historian Karol Estreicher, American MFAA officer Lt. Frank P. Albright, and two other GIs look at Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Lady with an Ermine' before its return to a museum in Kraków after being stolen by Nazi Germany in World War 2, 1945. Photo by Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo

The Washington Principles are not legally binding but call on the signatory countries to act within an ethical framework, underscoring the moral element of restitution. This continues to resonate today, 90 years on from the advent of the Third Reich. 

‘The Washington Principles reminded people that Nazi looting wasn’t incidental to the Nazi project of extermination and murder of the Jewish population of Europe,’ Anne Webber, Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, tells Christie's, ‘it was absolutely central to it.’ 

Webber’s organization, created two months after the enactment of the Washington Principles, works with governments and institutions throughout the world to implement the guidelines and also represents those looking to identify and recover stolen property. 

Since its inception, the Commission has restituted over 3,500 objects to their rightful owners. ‘Each time something is returned to a family, you are restoring something of that history,’ says Webber.

‘It was the greatest cultural theft in history. What the Nazis attempted to do was wipe out every element of Jewish culture’ – Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat

Many organizations like Webber’s were formed in the wake of the 1998 conference, and accessible databases like the German Lost Art database, the Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume and provenance databases like that of the Getty Research Institute have been published online. Taken together, these advances help victims and their heirs today to piece together the lost histories of their families and the objects they once owned, reminding us that the seizure of personal property was another means of oppression and control, and underlines the human element of these cases. 

An art market leader in restitution and provenance research

In the 25 years since the establishment of the Washington Principles, Christie’s is proud to be an art market leader in the network of expert researchers and advocates, guided by the Washington Principles

Marc Porter, Chairman of Christie’s Americas, attended the 1998 conference and has been deeply involved in creating and strengthening the work of the Restitution Department. The Principles, he says, ‘bent the arc of the art world toward ensuring that family histories and the provenance of objects would be unearthed and preserved, and new paths to the resolution of ownership questions could be opened and pursued.’

Since then, many hands have been involved in the efforts of the Restitution Department, including Ambassador Eizenstat himself, who serves on the company's Advisory Board.

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Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Meules de Blé, 1888. Gouache, watercolor, pen and brush and black ink over pencil on paper. 19 x 23 ¾ in. (48.5 x 60.4 cm.). Sold for $35,855,000 on 10 November 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Richard Aronowitz, Christie’s Global Head of Restitution, says that his work is informed in every way by the Washington Principles, which act as the ethical precept under which his department operates. The Restitution team looks at nearly every object that comes up for sale, conducting provenance research and examining transfers of ownership between 1933 and 1945. 

If research raises a concern, the team launches a comprehensive investigation into the object’s provenance. If needed, they then focus on facilitating a dialogue to find a ‘just and fair solution,’ as outlined in the Principles. ‘We are treading a delicate path, because often the current holder of a work has bought it in entirely good faith,’ says Aronowitz. In these instances, there is no one solution, and the team liaises between the former owner or heirs and the current owner towards a fair settlement. 

Christie’s Restitution Department has researched thousands of artworks, adding to the scholarship and ownership history. The department has also facilitated resolution to hundreds of Nazi-era claims, including major works of art. Examples include Vincent van Gogh's Meules de blé (1888), a case settled between the Cox Collection and the heir of Max Meirowsky and heirs of Alexandrine de Rothschild. Christie’s has also been pleased to work with claimants in presenting artworks such as El Greco's Portrait of a Gentleman (1570), which was restituted thanks to the Commission for Looted Art in Europe.

‘It becomes very much one's life mission,’ says Aronowitz, ‘not just a job.’

The ripple effect 

The ongoing impact of the Washington Principles continues today, and their cultural significance is extensive. ‘The Principles recognised that the looting that was undertaken by the Nazis and by their collaborators represented a crime against humanity, and it is a continuing crime,’ says Webber.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco (1541-1614), Portrait of a Gentleman, Half-length, in Black, His Right Hand Resting on a Book. Oil on canvas. 39⅜ x 32⅝ in (100 x 82.8 cm). Sold for £1,222,500 on 7 December 2021 at Christie’s in London. Restituted thanks to the Commission for Looted Art in Europe

While discussion around whether the Principles go far enough in holding countries accountable is ongoing, Ambassador Eizenstat remains optimistic about their achievements and future. Thousands of stolen cultural works have been restituted since 1998, an ever-growing body of information continues to be accessible online and five countries — the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom — have established claims commissions to process restitution cases. 

‘The ripple effect of the Washington Principles continues now 25 years later,’ says Ambassador Eizenstat. ‘The fact that a number of countries like the Dutch, the French and the Germans are returning colonial-era art, the fact that art is still being returned under the Washington Principles, indicates that these voluntary Principles have had a lasting impact beyond anything we could have imagined at the time.’ Above all, they are a reminder of the importance of striving for justice.


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