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Protection and restitution of cultural property

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Cultural heritage is often threatened in the form of illegal excavations, looting, theft or illegal export.

Protection of cultural property and the illegal export of cultural assets

Theft, smuggling, illegal excavations and looting – cultural heritage is frequently at risk in many countries. Not only works of art and archaeological objects are lost forever as a result – above all, important sources of knowledge on history and culture disappear. Protecting cultural heritage has become an important task internationally. Germany is thus working actively to ensure better protection of cultural property by the international community.

Goddess Durga Statue, returned to India in September 2015
Goddess Durga Statue, returned to India in September 2015© dpa picturealliance

Fortunately, the unlawful removal of cultural property is today quite rightly regarded as utterly unacceptable.

Two UNESCO conventions are of particular importance in this area: the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Germany has acceded to both conventions and has implemented their provisions via national legislation. German laws on the protection of cultural property mean that cultural objects that have been illegally imported into Germany can be returned at the request of a Contracting State.

Germany has tightened its measures against illegal trade in cultural property. The burden of proof has been reversed since 2016. This means that anyone importing cultural property to Germany must have an export permit proving that the objects have been legally exported from the country of origin.

Special conditions apply to cultural property from Iraq and Syria. On the basis of EU regulations, all imports, exports and trade of such goods from Iraq and Syria have been banned since 2003 and 2013 respectively. The regulation on cultural property from Syria was put in place in December 2016 following an initiative by Germany.

Germany works hard to bring about the return of cultural property that was imported illegally. Recent examples include the return of the winged seahorse brooch to Turkey in March 2013 that had been stolen from a museum in Turkey in 2005. Some 200 looted frescoes and icons originating from Northern Cyprus were returned to Cyprus in spring 2013.

  • In September 2013, 14 valuable objects including 5000-year-old cylinder seals and a cuneiform tablet were returned to Iraq. Further cuneiform tablets were returned in 2015 and 2016.
  • In April 2014, three antique objects seized by the German authorities at the Swiss border were handed over to the Egyptian Ambassador in Berlin. In 2016, the court ordered that a fourth object from the same seizure be returned to Egypt. Amulets were returned to Egypt in 2015. The following year, an ancient Egyptian ivory statuette, which had been stolen from an Egyptian museum and was to be sold in Germany, was returned.
  • In 2015, the Linden Museum in Stuttgart voluntarily returned a valuable statue of the goddess Durga to India after it was revealed that the statue had been stolen from a temple in India.
  • In 2016, three pre-Columbian bowls, which had been put up for auction in Berlin, were returned to Guatemala.

Restitution of cultural assets displaced as a consequence of war (looted art)

The restitution of cultural property is the term used by experts to refer to looted art, that is, cultural assets displaced from or to Germany during or immediately after the Second World War. What is meant here are cultural assets displaced by either German or Soviet troops. In practice, the question of objects evacuated to former German territories in the east to protect them from bombing is also dealt with in this context. Since the early 1990s, the German Government has been involved in restitution talks with Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Many other cultural objects have been returned to or from other countries following negotiations on a case-by-case basis.

Yet to this day, many important cultural assets which are part and parcel of German cultural heritage remain in Russia and Poland as well as in Ukraine, Georgia and other successor states of the former Soviet Union.

For Germany, cultural restitution is anything but a one-way street. Between 1945 and 1962, some one million cultural assets were returned to their rightful owners by the Allies and Germany both at home and abroad as part of the restitution process. As far as the German Government is aware, there are today hardly any cultural assets displaced as a consequence of war in Germany which have not yet been returned by the German side.

Cultural assets seized by the Nazis (Nazi-confiscated art)

It is important to differentiate between looted art and objects confiscated by the National Socialist regime primarily from Jewish citizens of German or foreign descent - so-called Nazi-confiscated art. Here, it is the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art adopted in 1998 which apply and these are used to achieve a “just and fair solution” for the confiscated property. According to the Joint Declaration on the Washington Principles issued in 1999 by the Federal Government, the Länder and the National Associations of Local Authorities, it is the responsibility of the legal entity governing the institution in which the Nazi-confiscated art is found (for example, libraries and museums) to bring about such a solution.

Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Grütters (centre) signing the agreement on the estate of Cornelius Gurlitt.
Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Grütters (centre) signing the agreement on the estate of Cornelius Gurlitt.© dpa picturealliance

Recently, the Gurlitt case in particular has played a major role in the media. More than 1,200 pieces of art owned by Cornelius Gurlitt were seized in Munich in March 2012 as part of proceedings investigating tax offences. In the case of up to 500 artworks, the possibility of them being Nazi-confiscated art could not be ruled out. The Federal Government and Bavaria subsequently set up a task force to clarify the provenance of the artworks in question. The agreement concluded on 24 November 2014 between Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Grütters, the Free State of Bavaria and the Kunstmuseum Bern as the testamentary heir of Cornelius Gurlitt who passed away in May 2014 provides that the work of the Schwabing Art Trove Task Force be continued. Artworks which are in fact Nazi-confiscated art are restituted by the Federation as soon as the rightful owner can be identified.

In October 2014, the Federation, Länder and municipalities also resolved to set up a German Lost Art Koordinierungsstelle. It opened on 1 January 2015 in Magdeburg and is intended to serve as the central agency in Germany for questions about the implementation of the Washington Principles at both national and international level. The Office has the primary task of promoting provenance research and advising and assisting both private and public institutions in their efforts to seek out and return Nazi-confiscated art. The work of the Schwabing Art Trove Task Force, which was dissolved at the end of 2015, is being continued by the German Lost Art Foundation.


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