Restitution alert – Dutch website launched to reunite looted art works with lawful owners.

During the atrocities of the Second World War, many artworks were seized from innocent individuals and families by the Nazis. Artworks were either stolen when families fled their homes or sold in forced sales against their owners’ wishes at vastly reduced prices.

There are still many looted works in circulation and whose owners are still unidentified. Some estimate that as many as over 100,000 artworks have not yet been returned to their rightful owners.

Not all of these works are detected in public sales and many works are sold privately where people are completely unaware of the Nazis looted history to the works. Some of these works remain undetected or improperly investigated in museum collections, too.

Identifying title to the works is often a highly complicated process, usually down to a lack of access to the records, which may be lost or even have become separated from the work. This lack of information makes it extremely hard for prospective heirs to locate lost works and to prove ownership. Some heirs are completely unaware that their possessions are in existence.

Some works remain in state collections and in some circumstances the collections administrators still cannot identify owners. An example of this is the Nederlands Kunstbezit collection that contains approximately 4,700 art objects. This collection is what remains of the artworks recuperated from Germany after World War II and is managed by the Dutch State.

Against this backdrop, there has recently been the launch of a new Dutch website called ‘Herkomst Gezocht’ or in English, ‘Origins Unknown’.

To visit the website please click here – http://www.herkomstgezocht.nl/nl/

The website seeks to extend efforts to reunite artworks with the descendants of their original owners by allowing users of the website the ability to track down pieces which were unlawfully apprehended and access useful archival material.

Over 14,000 documents have now been uploaded to the website, with reports or photographs being made available, each relating to lost or stolen art works.

The centralising of information should enable individuals or families to search more effectively for their lost heirlooms.

The website service aims to allow individuals to search promptly and extensively, cutting out the need to filter through documentation by hand, as had been the practice for previous generations.

Rudi Ekkart is an art expert and is in support of this programme. Ekkart told NOS that the beauty of Herkomst Gezocht is that, “now everything is on the internet and you can use search terms,” to locate art. This has significantly increased the chances for success for those searching, as well as much reducing time spent doing so.

“It’s not just interesting for researchers and art dealers”, said Ekkart. ‘”Anyone can see if their family’s name is in it. In many families people didn’t talk about the war, so people often don’t know if grandma or grandpa reported missing works of art.”

Around half of the total works on the list are paintings, while another 1,000 items are sketches. There are also items of furniture, ceramics, silver and musical instruments.

On the website it is stated that Origins Unknown Agency (BHG) was founded in 1998, commissioned by the Dutch government to conduct provenance research into the state art collection (the NK collection). In addition, BHG handles all kinds of requests for information related to looted art.

Also on the website it is stated that BHG since January 2015 has sought recovery of around 15,000 lost artworks that were obtained by the Germans during the occupation of the Netherlands and were not recovered by the Allies after the Second World War. BHG has been digitising claims for these lost works and these claims are part of the Stichting Nederlandsch Kunstbezit (SNK) archive. SNK had been tasked with recovering these lost works in Germany and overseas.

The website has highlighted a particularly difficult aspect of examining these types of restitution issues, being that “not every work of art that has fallen during World War II as a result of coercion from the possession of the original owner has subsequently ended up in Germany.” The search for reuniting owners and artworks is a truly global one.

At the ADDG, our service provider Artive helps to research the lost or stolen art databases and checks whether title to artworks is obfuscated by potential restitution claims or other third party interests. They provide detailed reports on title checks. Our service provider Art Recovery International is an expert company that deals with the recovery process of historically looted or stolen art and our service provider Vitruvian Arts Consultancy Ltd. provides experts and provenance researchers to ensure an artwork is thoroughly investigated before sale. Members of 36 Art are barristers who have conducted restitution cases.

For any assistance with any potential restitution enquiries please do not hesitate to contact us at enquiries@artduediligencegroup.com or on 07460 352 939.

At ADDG we welcome the developments in the field of restitution.

A more modern approach by museums, a better developed legal landscape and a shifting global attitude towards restitution cases has led to some very real and positive developments in this area, one where identifying the provenance of and gaining clarity on who actually owned the artwork historically is becoming a matter of greater significance.

(For more about this issue see this blog article on “Wind of Change – Part 1: Restitution, France” here – http://jessicafranses.com/wind-change-part-1-restitution-france).

Watch this space for more updates on restitution.

Jessica Franses