Decades after the Holocaust, efforts to return Nazi-looted art are slow, steady

German soldiers in Naples, Italy, in 1944, pose with a painting taken from the National Museum of Naples Picture Gallery.

It’s never just as simple as “finders keepers, losers weepers.”

In June, the Philadelphia Museum of Art returned a 16th-century marksman’s shield in its possession since the 1950s to the Dresden City Museum.

The shield — in the Dresden City Museum’s possession until 1945, when it went missing — was a trophy from a Dresden bird-shooting competition, a practice common since the 1440s. Awarded to crossbow shooter Elector Johann Georg I of Saxony in 1618, the shield was donated to the city by the victor a year later. In the 1880s, it became part of Dresden’s Council treasury, and when the Dresden City Museum opened up shortly thereafter, a part of the museum’s collection.

At the end of World War II, the shield, kept in the museum’s basement, went missing along with the museum’s Council treasury collection. In 1956, the object, having reemerged, was auctioned off at a Swiss art trade. The owner, a resident of New York, donated the shield to the PMA 20 years later.

In 2016, however, the PMA realized it could no longer ethically possess the marksman’s shield. Through the museum’s provenance research — an ongoing curatorial practice of discovering an object’s origin — museum staff, led by PMA Director Emeritus Tim Rub, arranged for the return of the shield to Dresden. On July 2, the shield rejoined the Dresden City Museum’s collection on display.

As tangled as the restitution was, it’s hardly the only example. Since 2001, the PMA has returned several objects from its collection to the rightful owners. The museum continues to conduct extensive research on objects created before 1946 and acquired after 1932.

Those years are intentional. Since the beginning of the Third Reich, Nazi officials looted the art and historical objects of hundreds of thousands of private homes — particularly Jewish homes — and museums to assert dominance and destroy the livelihoods of the targeted population. Almost a century after the looting began, efforts to restitute and repatriate the stolen objects have just begun.

“The vast majority of people who lost everything that they had or much of what they had during the Shoah have never been able to reclaim any of their property, or very little,” said Lauren Levitt, a Temple University professor of religion, Jewish studies and gender.

Now, museums follow a set of standards to guide their provenance and restitution practices, keeping in mind the rippling effects the Holocaust still has on many families, who now have little evidence of their relatives’ existence in Europe before the Shoah.

“It’s a testimony to the sort of values and respect that those professionals have in relation to these really valuable pieces of artwork that were looted, and otherwise taken and redistributed both during and after the war,” Levitt said of the guidelines.

Artwork, in addition to having great monetary value to museums and collectors, also has profound and sentimental meanings to Jewish families. In the early 20th century, European Jews were beginning to assimilate and acculturate into mainstream European culture.

Wesley Fisher, the director of research for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and World Jewish Restitution Organization, head of the Claims Conference-WJRO Looted Art and Cultural Property Initiative and former executive director of the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, explained that art collection was a way for Jews to attain a more elite status, made appealing for those emerging from the shtetl period.

Jewish art collectors and artists joined many other Jewish elites in making their mark on European culture. As World War II approached, however, arts and culture became the target of Adolf Hitler’s dictatorial rule.

“Hitler had himself been an artist, a rejected artist, but still,” Fisher said. “There was the general recognition, as there very often is in dictatorships, that art plays a role in control of the population.”

Hitler created the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, a Nazi agency designed for looting Jewish cultural objects, including art and Judaica. In addition to becoming the property of Nazi officers who aspired to join Hitler in the practice of art appreciation, the pieces were stored. There is speculation that Hitler, upon being victorious, would have created a museum to an extinct race, which would memorialize the Jewish mass genocide. The finest pieces would go to the Führermuseum, an unrealized art museum in Hitler’s Austrian hometown on Linz, Fisher said.

The ERR was far from the only group designed to loot Jewish-owned artwork. The Gestapo also took part in the robberies. In Western Europe, the looting efforts were organized, with France and Italy creating similar initiatives. In the Soviet Union, the government had already nationalized Bolshevik (which also crudely included Jews) cultural items before the Nazis’ arrival there. Artwork was state property.

Despite the inherent value of the art pieces to the Nazis, documentation of the artworks was sloppy.

“The Nazis, for the most part, certainly in large parts of what they were doing, were not recording where these paintings were coming from,” Fisher said.

While Nazis tracked the prominent pieces from Paris’ Jeu de Paume museum, they did not document the locations of other works. Furniture and less-moveable pieces never made it to the databases.

To make matters muddier, art auctions, sales under duress and enforced sales sent these objects all over the world. Fisher said that 15,000 artworks were auctioned off in Paris after the Western Allies had returned them from the Munich Central Collecting Point, which was created as a repository for art stolen by Nazis.

In the decades after the war, the Claims Conference worked to create a database for the stolen art. There are an estimated 600,000 objects stolen by the Nazis and their allies during the war; the database contains only a fraction of that figure.

“That still is pretty much the only database that shows what was taken, from whom the items were taken and what the state of the objects have been,” Fisher said.

For museums such as the Dresden City Museum, the lack of organized data surrounding looted objects make the process of retrieving stolen items from the collection even harder.

Andrea Rudolph, the curator of cultural history of the museum, said that 80% of its cultural history collection has been returned.

Dresden City Museum lost its database in the war and relies on others to triangulate and identify the lost objects and their locations. The museum has had a cup and drinking vessel returned in 2019 and 2017, respectively, along with a few other objects since 2002.

“The problem is, we don’t have any capacity to do specialty research on this topic,” Rudolph said. “We would need … researchers and especially financial resources to pay someone to do this research.”

Though the Claims Conference was created in 1951 to address reparations to Jewish people following the Holocaust, art repatriation was not its primary focus. Moreover, art restitution and repatriation more broadly did not gain an international spotlight until about 20 years ago.

For the 50 years following the creation of the Claims Conference, efforts were focused elsewhere, on providing monetary reparations to survivors and memorializing the history of the Holocaust.

In the 1990s, however, a renewed interest in art restitution emerged following the opening of the archives in the Soviet Union after the fall of communism, which allowed access to records that would help in provenance efforts, Fisher said.

Around the same time, documentaries such as “The Rape of Europa” and books such as “Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasures” by Konstantin Akinsha elucidated the Nazi history of looting art.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, in which 44 governments committed to the work of provenance and art restitution and developed the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.

The American Association (now Alliance) of Museums, in response to the growing conversations around provenance, put out its own standards of self-regulation. In 2003, it created the Nazi Era Provenance Internet Portal, where 179 museums have opted into uploading information about objects in their collections that changed hands during the Nazi era.

Though representative of the world coming to terms with and working to correct the sustained impact of Nazi rule, the return and survival of artworks to their home cities is a reminder of the individual loss Jewish families experienced during the Shoah.

Levitt asserted that associated with each piece of art, in addition to its monetary value, is a story. For some families, a piece of art was a treasured object passed down from generations. By looking at it, one could feel connections to their ancestors. The physical pieces of art are a tether to the past generations of Jews lost to the horrors of the Shoah.

“As survivors are aging and becoming more frail, and many of them are no longer with us, there’s something about objects in the ways in which they take up space” she said. “We know that they were there then, and they’re here now.”

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