In April 2019, research began at the University of Bonn on international practice in the restitution of artworks stolen under the Nazi regime. Head of the research project is Prof. Dr. Matthias Weller, who holds the “Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach professorship for civil law, art and cultural property law”.
The project aims to provide a comprehensive, comparative analysis of international practice in the restitution of Nazi-looted art. It aims to establish a generalized set of rules on how decisions are made based on considerations of fairness and justice. Once established, these rules can be used as guidance and support for those who make decisions and recommendations on matters of restitution. The project focuses on those countries which, in line with the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, have established restitution commissions as alternative mechanisms for resolving ownership disputes. The countries in question are Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The project is funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für Kultur und Medien).
To quote the Commissioner, Prof. Monika Grütters: “When it comes to the restitution of Nazi-looted art, there are many different views on what constitutes a ‘just and fair solution’ in terms of the Washington Declaration. Views vary not just in Germany but in other countries, too. If this results in different decisions being made in similar types of cases, the legitimacy of those decisions may be called into question. Scholarly assessment and a more precise definition of the principle of ‘just and fair solutions’, along with the systematization of case-by-case restitution practice, will help to increase the transparency and consistency of future decisions and are essential for them to gain broad acceptance. We are determined that the findings of this project should benefit future provenance research.”
The Commissioner also emphasises that a key concern of the German Government is the effective implementation of the Washington Principles and of the “Declaration of the German Federal Government, German states and leading municipal associations to locate and return cultural assets confiscated through Nazi persecution, especially those of Jewish ownership” (known as the “Joint Declaration”).
As Prof. Dr. Weller explains: “The Washington Principles are a central research focus of this professorship. After 20 years of restitution practice under these Principles, in which many recommendations and decisions have been made, we are seeing more and more divergent decisions on cases of a similar nature. This is a perfectly normal development. In the United States, when such developments occur in a given subject area, a ‘restatement’ is formulated. Non-binding restatements examine and systematize the case material of a new legal area to formulate rules for decision-making. They also contain comments. If there is no precedent of a decision on a certain point of law – or if existing precedents are contradictory – the restatement proposes solutions and supports them with well-founded arguments. Since it was established in 1923, the prestigious American Law Institute (ALI) has formulated no fewer than 28 ‘Restatements of the Law’ in a variety of legal areas, and these are widely accepted. The European Commission has also conducted research projects in this area. This well-tried methodology will form the basis of our Restatement of Restitution Rules.”
The Restatement of Restitution Rules will be formulated in English and is expected to be published in 2024, at the end of the five-year project.
The research project will be presented to the public at the next Bonn Talks on Art and Cultural Property Law (Bonner Gesprächskreis Kunst- und Kulturgutschutzrecht) on 6 September 2019 at 6 p.m. in the faculty of law (Juridicum), lecture hall G, University of Bonn, Adenauerallee 24 – 42. Those interested in attending can register by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. An invitation will be sent out in due course.