Striving for Justice
Evaluation report: resume structural provenance research into artworks looted by the Nazis
Since 2007, there has been no structural research into the provenance of artworks looted by the Nazi regime or into tracing the original Jewish owners and their heirs. This is contrary to international principles to which the Netherlands has committed itself. The provenance investigation should therefore be resumed as soon as possible. In addition, a new and unambiguous assesment framework should be put in place to handle restitution applications for artworks looted by the Nazis. In all assessments made within this framework, the interests of the applicants should no longer be weighed against the interests of the museum. Meaningful redress for injustice must be the guiding principle of any such policy.
These are the findings of the advisory report Striving for Justice (Streven naar Rechtvaardigheid) produced by the evaluation committee on restitution policy concerning artworks looted by the Nazi regime, and presented today by the chair of the committee, Jacob Kohnstamm. At the request of Ingrid van Engelshoven, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, the evaluation committee was established by the Council for Culture to evaluate the legal and moral aspects of restitution policy and to make recommendations for improvement. The decision to evaluate the restitution policy in 2020 was taken as far back as 2016.
In territories occupied by the forces of the Nazi regime during the Second World War, including the Netherlands, vast quantities of cultural objects were stolen from Jews and other persecuted groups. After the war, some of these objects were brought back to the Netherlands by the Allies with the aim of returning as many as possible to their original owners or their heirs. Since 2001, applications for restitution have been assessed by the Restitutions Committee. These applications may involve art that is part of the National Art Collection, but the collections of municipal and provincial museums also contain artworks that were looted by the Nazis.
Unambiguous assessment framework
The policy on restitution is set out in various advisory memoranda, as well as a multitude of letters from successive ministers. This has resulted in a lack of transparency that denies applicants the necessary insight into the criteria on which their application for restitution will be assessed. The evaluation committee therefore proposes a new and unambiguous assessment framework, which, like the current policy, should be based on the international agreement that has come to be known as the Washington Principles. The committee’s advice is that this assessment framework should be set out as part of the Decree Establishing the Restitutions Committee. It will then be up to the Minister to determine whether and to what extent the new assessment framework applies to cases that have already been settled and cases that are ongoing.
By subscribing to the Washington Principles, the Netherlands has assumed the obligation to actively seek out the original owners or their next of kin. Modern technology and the availability of new sources offer fresh perspectives for provenance research in the Netherlands, which – contrary to the Washington Principles – was effectively brought to an end in 2007. The evaluation committee therefore advises that the Restitutions Expertise Centre, which forms part of the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD), should be given the means to resume this structural provenance investigation as soon as possible.
On the basis of interviews with and a questionnaire issued to applicants, the evaluation committee concludes that the work of the Restitutions Committee is widely appreciated but also the subject of criticism. Given the high degree of emotional investment that often characterises applications, the evaluation committee believes that communication with and treatment of applicants should be strengthened and improved. The committee also recommends that the relevant procedure should be set up so as to enable the Restitutions Committee to play a more mediating role.
Lastly, the evaluation committee recommends setting up a helpdesk under the responsibility of the Minister to actively provide information on restitution policy within the Netherlands and abroad. The helpdesk can provide applicants with guidance on the procedure to be followed and put them in touch with the appropriate organisations. The evaluation committee argues that, if the provenance investigation gives cause to do so, the helpdesk should actively approach the original owners or their heirs.