Twice Saved or Twice Looted? Exploring Approaches to the Restitution of Nazi Looted Art and Russian Trophy Art

by Eléonore Thole

At the end of last year, it was exactly a quarter of a century since the Washington Principles were adopted. These 11 non-binding basic principles were a milestone for the art world. For the first time, a global consensus was reached on a just and fair restitution policy for Nazi looted art. One of the most important components of these principles is conducting extensive provenance research. Nevertheless, many Nazi looted artworks have not been returned to their rightful owners since then.

Proceedings of the Washington Conference. Bindenagel, J.D., ed. Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, November 30 - December 3, 1998. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1999.
Proceedings of the Washington Conference. Bindenagel, J.D., ed. Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, November 30 – December 3, 1998. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1999.

This year, 2024, there has been more attention than ever to the problems surrounding provenance research and restitution issues. At the beginning of March, the Best Practices for the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art were published. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Washington Conference Principles, this set of best practices aims to clarify and enhance the effective execution of the Washington Principles. Of course, this calls for a great celebration, yet an important part of the Washington Principles has remained the same. Just as with the principles, these best practices were drafted with the recognition of the diversity of the national legal systems. They acknowledge that states operate within the framework of their own legislation. States will need to adopt the ensuing best practices in alignment with their respective national legal frameworks.

The consequence of this in practice is that many countries still have their own ideas when it comes to conducting sufficient provenance research and implementing restitution policies. Research, conducted by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) also reported in March 2024, shows how countries have ranged from making tremendous progress to making no progress at all. An important presence in this last area is Russia, given its unique situation immediately after the Second World War. In the occupation zone of the Soviet Union in Germany, the Red Army has taken the artworks it found back to its own territory under the guise of trophy art. The Duma passed a law regarding the handling of this trophy art only in a few months before the Washington Principles were established in 1998, while the Russians also endorsed the Washington Principles at the end of the same year.

In the context of how the Russians have their own view of the Great Patriotic War, as they refer to the Second World War, their regulations choose to nationalize the cultural objects they took as trophy art. For the rightful owners, who have suffered during the Holocaust, this makes it extremely difficult to ever get their art objects back. This is mainly due to the onerous formalities of the Russian Trophy Art Law, that restitution requests are hardly ever granted. Both the Russian Trophy Art Law and the Washington Principles attempt to provide a ‘solution’ to art confiscated by the Nazis, but each from their own point of view.

According to the Russians, the Red Army legitimately took the artworks at the end of the Second World War as compensation for the enormous suffering inflicted on them (so-called compensatory restitution). The Washington Principles, on the other hand, encourage the return of Nazi looted art to its rightful owners, seeing this as a ‘just and fair’ solution. It could be argued that compensatory restitution does not fit within the framework of the Washington Principles and the international treaties. The legitimacy of the possession of the artworks by the Russians is therefore questionable. While from Moscow’s perspective it is mainly stated that the Russians secured the artworks twice, namely first from the hands of the Nazis and then by safely storing them on their own territory because they found them in terrible conditions in their occupation zone. In the West it is mainly stated that the cultural objects were stolen twice, first by the Nazis and then by the Red Army.

Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov, “Spoils of War: The Soviet Union’s Hidden Art Treasures,” ARTnews 90/4 (1991): 130-141.
Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov, “Spoils of War: The Soviet Union’s Hidden Art Treasures,” ARTnews 90/4 (1991): 130-141.

Despite the fact that the Russians are very secretive about their trophy art – one can think of the greatest discovery of (art)historians Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov in 1991 who shocked the world with the enormous amount of works of art hidden in cellars of State Museums in Russia – this has not always been the case. For example, some artworks have returned to Europe in the 1950s. A well-known example is Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. This painting was returned to the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), bearing in mind that this was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, after it was kept in the Soviet Union under the predicate ‘Twice Saved’, but due to the end of the Cold War, both the issue and the works of art faded into the background. In the 1990s, conducting provenance research and restitution issues came to the attention again. A quarter of a century have now passed while still many restitution cases have not been satisfactorily been resolved.

Sistine Madonna, Raphael, 1513–1514, Oil on Canvas, 265cm x 196 cm (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Estel/Klut). 
Sistine Madonna, Raphael, 1513–1514, Oil on Canvas, 265cm x 196 cm (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Estel/Klut).

Especially at this moment, with the invasion of Russia in Ukraine, it may be considered taboo to try to understand Russia’s point of view on restitution. Yet this is of great importance to comprehend why the restitution of cultural objects looted by the Nazis, which are still in Russia, is so incredibly problematic today. The Russians not only deny owning art looted by the Nazis, but they also believe they have the right to own it. This contradiction goes against international rules, to which Russia has also committed. Russia, by the way, is not alone in this. Poland, for example, also recently passed a restitution law that complicates the restitution of Nazi looted art (2021).

The 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles is being celebrated in the art world, especially in Western countries. At the same time, a dialogue with Russia on the restitution of Nazi looted art seems further away than ever. On this year’s International Provenance Day (10 April 2024), it would be a good momentum to reflect on the broader context of the extensive provenance research into Nazi looted art that is on Russian soil under the designation of trophy art.


Eléonore Thole is currently working on a PhD thesis on the ‘Dienststelle Mühlmann’, alongside her work at the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
retour (2024, 10. April). Twice Saved or Twice Looted? Exploring Approaches to the Restitution of Nazi Looted Art and Russian Trophy Art. RETOUR. Abgerufen am 25. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/w6xm

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