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Nazi-looted art deserves a special law status

Nazi-looted art was the greatest displacement of art in human history...


Whilst spoliation has occurred throughout history, the spoliation of art during the Nazi regime deserves special status because of its sheer scale and the underlying genocide that accompanied it.


Many scholars in the domain of looted art, such as Kaye,[1] Sissons, Masurovsky,[2] Dibbits,[3] Pfeiffer-Poensgen,[4] and Fisher, share the idea that Nazi-looted art was the greatest displacement of art in human history and an integral part of the policy to eradicate the Jews. Looting or spoliation is defined as an offence under the action or operation of military power can take several forms, most usually taking without lawful excuse property from a person who has been killed, injured, captured or property that has been left exposed.[5] Whilst spoliation has occurred throughout history, the spoliation of art during the Nazi regime deserves special status because of its sheer scale and the underlying genocide that accompanied it.

In 1940, Ambassador Otto Abetz, acting on the explicit instruction of Hitler, required a military group of the secret police (“Geheime Feldpolizei”) to put into “safety" some of the best known collections of collectors and Jewish merchants, especially those of certain family members of Rothschild or Maurice Dreyfus, Raymond Lazard, and Rosenberg-Bernstein.[6] This process of “Aryanization” (or “Arisierung”) refers to the transfer of Jewish-owned property to non-Jews between 1933-45.[7]

For Lynn H. Nicholas,[8] the Nazis exploited the power of art in terms of ethnic triumphalism confiscating Jewish private collections, assets, properties, art galleries, businesses and degenerate art with the objective of creating a new order.[9] To put it into perspective, Nazi looting equalled all Napoleonic plunder, amassing over 600,000 artworks looted from public and private collections in Europe and the USSR.[10] In total, the Nazi occupation of Germany had seized or forced the sale of one-fifth of all art of the Western world.

[1] Lianna Brinded, ‘US and Israel Pressure Germany to Hand Over 1bn in Nazi Art Loot to Jewish Heirs‘ International business Times (10 December 2013) <https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/nazi-art-munich-apartment-jewish-heirlooms-wwii-528906> accessed 20 June 2020 [2] Sophie Hardach, ‘Art Theft: The Last Unsolved Nazi Crime’ The Atlantic (18 November 2013) <https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/11/art-theft-the-last-unsolved-nazi-crime/281566/> accessed 01 June 2020 [3] Frank Bajohr, ‘Expropriation and Expulsion’ in D. Stone (ed), The Historiography of the Holocaust (Palgrave Macmillan 2005) 52-64 [4] Evelien Campfens (ed), Fair and just solutions? Alternatives to litigation in Nazi-looted art disputes: status quo and new developments (Eleven International Publishing 2015) 116 [5] Daniel Greenberg, Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law (4th edn, Sweet & Maxwell 2015) 1467 [6] Jean Mattéoli, Isabelle le Masne de Chermont, and Didier Schulman, Le Pillage de l’ art en France pendant l, occupation et la situation des 2000 oeuvres confiées aux musées nationaux (Vie Publique, 1 January 2000) <https://www.vie-publique.fr/rapport/24365-le-pillage-de-lart-en-france-pendant-loccupation-et-la-situation-des-2> accessed 22 July 2020 [7] ibid [8] Lynn Nicholas, 'World War II and the Displacement of Art and Cultural Property' in Elizabeth Simpson (ed), The Spoils of War (Abrams 1997) 43 [9] Dr. Jonathan Petropoulos, ‘Art Looting during the Third Reich: An Overview with Recommendations for Further Research’ (Plenary session on Nazi-Confiscated Art Issues, Washington Conference, November 1998) 441 [10] Therese O’ Donnell, The Restitution of Holocaust Looted Art and Transitional Justice: The Perfect Storm or the Raft of Medusa? (2011) 22 European Journal of International Law 49, 55

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