The adoption of the Washington Principles by 44 nations in 1998 marked a deeply significant moment in the development of cultural policy in the 20th and 21st centuries. The Principles established, for the first time, a set of clear ground rules for dealing with claims to works of art lost during the Holocaust period and they remain the guiding force in this sphere. Their goal of achieving 'just and fair solutions' to claims for Nazi-looted art pervade all subsequent guidelines and the phrase has become the leitmotif for the consideration of such claims.
The object of the major conference held in Berlin on 26th-28th November 2018, hosted by the German Lost Art Foundation (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste), was to review progress on the implementation of the Principles over the past two decades. The conference brought together an inter-disciplinary mix of lawyers, politicians, academics, claimants, provenance researchers and ethicists from across the globe. The eminent and wide-ranging speakers addressed an audience of over 800 delegates in Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt, a fitting venue given its interesting history: the current building was a gift to the city from the United States after the Second World War, its Congress Hall designed as a symbol of freedom and a venue for international cultural exchange.
Proceedings were opened by Monika Grutters, MP, German Minister of State for Culture and the Media. The Minister's opening comments set the tone for the remaining two days, emphasising that whilst no words or actions can make good the loss and devastation suffered by Jewish families and others during the Second World War, the need to research and understand the tragic events of the 1930s and 40s and to restitute lost works of art to victims and their heirs is as pressing today as it ever has been. Behind every tangible work of art lies a personal story of pain and loss, and the process of researching and understanding these losses, and restituting the works, is deeply meaningful and wholly necessary for the sake of historical justice.
The topic has loomed large throughout the Minister's tenure which commenced in 2013, the year when the German Government disclosed the discovery of the Gurlitt trove, an unprecedented collection of art works whose provenance was either unclear or, in many cases, could be traced directly to Nazi looting. (1) The German Lost Art Foundation was created, largely in direct response to the case, as the central body for the implementation of the Washington Principles, and Government funding in Germany for this work has almost quadrupled since then. Areas of particular focus have been a vast expansion in provenance research, enhancements in digitisation to facilitate the dissemination of information and the improvement and consolidation of databases, which will culminate in the launch of a new international, searchable database in 2020. Restitutions have taken place, perhaps more frequently than might be suggested by the number of cases coming before the German spoliation panel, the Advisory Commission (or the Limbach Commission as it is more commonly known): it has heard only fifteen cases in as many years since it was established. The Minister suggested that, by contrast, more than 5,700 cultural goods and over 11,000 books/library items have been restituted in Germany on a voluntary basis.
The overriding message of the Minister's address, which became something of a mantra over the course of the conference, was that this twenty-year point marks not the end of the process instigated by the Washington Principles, nor even somewhere down the middle of that road, but that we are really only at the beginning of the body of work required to address the historical injustices at stake. In summing up, Minister Grutters stressed that the recent rise of extremist politics both in Germany and across Europe demanded that these efforts be...