Holocaust-related art claims started right after the end of World War II, but many survivors were unable to pursue claims because of inadequate information, great distances, difficulty of communications, and lack of resources -- as well as the effects of their wartime experiences. Most countries in Europe kept the process open for a decade or more, but the differences in fairness among the countries were varied greatly. Some art-theft victims succeeded in part while others had to give up and many could not even begin. The issue gradually fell from public awareness, and many of the works of art taken from owners by the Nazis traded freely in international art markets.
In the early 1990s, a new focus on the entire issue of Holocaust-era art claims came about for a number of reasons. Several scholarly and popular books addressed the problems and found a wide audience, not only among aging survivors and their grown children, but in the general public. The fall of the USSR, dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the unification of East and West Germany produced new possibilities for claimants to approach governments and museums in formerly communist Europe. Dramatic news of the survival of art masterpieces hidden for decades in Moscow and Leningrad prompted a reappraisal of what had been destroyed in the war. A growing interest in other assets including real estate, bank accounts, and life insurance policies revived memories of the material losses and the post-war injustices that left the business of restitution unfinished.
The issue of long delayed justice grew to be an international matter for governments to consider. A conference in London in 1997 was the first meeting since the Second World War to take up the matter of Nazi-looted gold. More than forty nations participated. More than twenty countries set up commissions to look into their own history in this area. The following year, in Washington, D. C., representatives of forty-four nations gathered for several days, and put Holocaust-era art thefts on the agenda for the first time. The conferences issued guidelines for art restitution called the Washington Principles. International conferences followed in Vilnius and Prague.
A section of this website called CASES presents the experience of the restitution efforts of many families that have come to courts in Europe and the United States. It includes legal papers and press coverage in considerable detail. For some years, the Art Law group at Herrick, Feinstein LLP has been keeping track of successful recoveries of Holocaust-looted art in a handy summary chart that is regularly updated. We provide a link to it here.