Reflections: The Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art

November 06, 2023

A guest columnist explores the Principles' profound impact over the past 25 years.

Over the course of 2023, Christie’s auction house has presented a series of programs across the globe on the impacts of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, a nonbinding, ethically driven code introduced a quarter century ago to address the disposition of art stolen under the Nazi regime. In this column, Richard Aronowitz, Global Head of Restitution at Christie’s, reflects on the Principles’ profound impact on the art world.

The year 2023 marks a significant milestone in the restitution of art and cultural property that was lost, looted, confiscated or sold under duress in Nazi-controlled Europe between 1933 and 1945. It has been 25 years since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, a gathering at the U.S. Department of State and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to which 44 countries sent representatives, cultural ambassadors and thought leaders to deliver statements on their countries’ then-current position on unrecovered Nazi loot.

In a major initiative led by Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, at the time the United States Under Secretary for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs, who had convened the conference, one of the key achievements and lasting legacies of the event was the drafting and publication of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. The Principles are a set of 11 nonbinding, moral-ethical codes that serve today as the bedrock of work by provenance researchers and restitution specialists around the world in the arena of unrecovered 1933 – 1945 losses, whether at museums or in the international art market.

Principle no. 1 states that “Art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted should be identified,” Principle no. 3 says that “Resources and personnel should be made available to facilitate the identification of all art that had been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted,” and Principle no. 5 proposes that “Every effort should be made to publicize art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted in order to locate its pre-War owners or their heirs.” There is, then, nothing ambiguous about this language, and 25 years ago the Principles made explicit the new standards of research to which the international art trade should be aspiring.

One of the key phrases that is embedded in the Principles is that of “just and fair solutions” when discussing possible remedies that can be applied once a work that was lost, looted or sold under duress during the Third Reich is discovered on the wall of a museum or emerges on the art market. Of course, “just and fair” is a phrase that is open to myriad interpretations, none of which can be easily calibrated or defined in law. Fair to whom: to the current owner as well as to the claimants? How exactly do we measure what is just?

The Principles in Action

In practice, however, when the team of provenance researchers within the Restitution Department at Christie’s discovers that a work consigned for sale has an unresolved Nazi-era ownership taint, acting as neutral intermediaries and using the Principles as a template, we try to initiate a dialogue between our consignor—almost always a good-faith owner to whom the news comes often as a tremendous shock—and the descendants of the family that lost possession of the work during the Third Reich.

The moral-ethical force of the Principles provides the framework for us to initiate such a dialogue, which aims to achieve a settlement between the parties that often results in the sale of the work pursuant to a joint written settlement agreement allowing for the sharing of the sale proceeds and, through this, the lifting of the ownership taint.

The approach taken to righting the historical wrongs of the looting and forced sale of art and cultural valuables that took place over 78 years ago, then, is necessarily a pragmatic one, but is also underpinned by a deeply felt need to do the right thing.

The Principles and their goal of “just and fair” solutions allows the Restitution team, working closely with our expert departments, to do that by first conducting research into the ownership history of the works that Christie’s intends to sell, and then by trying to initiate dialogue that leads to settlements if an unresolved taint is discovered.

Broader Impacts

It’s important to note that, before 1998, any auction house or art dealer could sell with near-complete impunity and any museum could hold undisturbed in its collections a work that was lost during the Third Reich and that remained unrecovered after 1945, as there was no mechanism—beyond costly, complex, time-consuming litigation in the very few jurisdictions where that was even possible—for families to make a claim to a work that had been lost or sold under duress.

Following the conclusion of the Washington Conference, things gradually began to change. Awareness of the looting of art and cultural property from Jews in Nazi Europe slowly began to grow, supported by the increased publication of historical works on the subject. No longer was it plausible simply to plead ignorance on the subject. As such, the international art world increasingly sought to identify “looted” works and to rectify the injustices they represent.

Without the Principles, and without the Washington Conference that led to them under the inspired stewardship of Ambassador Eizenstat, none of this would be possible; and historical wrongs would have continued, often entirely undetected and unrecognized, through the generations.

About the Author

Richard Aronowitz began his career in the art world as a furniture porter at Bonhams in 1993, then joined Sotheby’s as an Impressionist & Modern Art specialist in 1997, before leaving to become Director of the Ben Uri Gallery in 2003. He rejoined Sotheby’s as European Head of Restitution in 2006, then moved to Christie’s in March 2022 as Global Head of Restitution. Richard is the author of the novels Five Amber Beads, It’s Just the Beating of my Heart, and An American Decade and a book of poetry, Life Lessons.

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