Restitution of Cultural Objects Taken During World War II (Part I)

23 Mar 2015 8:39 AM | Anonymous

Restitution of Cultural Objects Taken During World War II (Part I)

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, some of the most important developments in the restitution of cultural objects and other assets confiscated in the period surrounding World War II have occurred only within the last decade or so. Some restitution was done, of course, at the conclusion of the war. The cultural objects that the Allied forces recovered were returned to the countries from whose citizens or museums they had been taken (in a process known as “external restitution”), for those countries to then return to their owners (“internal restitution”). However, those actions were complicated by the loss of people, records, communities, and communal memory. They were also complicated, prevented, or delayed by the resistance of governments and legal systems to adequately address the question of restitution, as well as a variety of political complications, not least of which was the Cold War, which locked people, cultural objects, and information behind the Iron Curtain.

It took a combination of the end of Communism (with the unlocking of museums and archives in the former Soviet territories), the publication of pioneering studies of Nazi-era looting, and the persistent efforts of organizations like the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Congress to raise public awareness of the continuing problem of restitution. The statements of principles, statements of ethics, settlements, and court decisions have produced (and continue to produce) a profound change in the art trade and museum practice with respect to the understanding and treatment of confiscated and duress sale cultural objects. These efforts have produced an on-going reassessment of the question of restitution, whose effects will be felt in many other restitution contexts as well.

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