Germany Moves to Replace Advisory Panel on Nazi-Looted Art with Binding Arbitration

Heirs of Jewish collectors trying to recover Nazi-looted art will soon get unilateral access to binding arbitration as part of reforms recently approved by the German government and its 16 states.

The binding arbitration would replace the current national advisory commission, which requires disputes over contested works to be submitted by both sides and has no legal avenues to enforce the panel’s recommendations. According to the Art Newspaper, which first reported the news, this change is a long-standing demand of the German government and the commission but faced resistance from states, especially Bavaria.

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BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 16: German Commissioner for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth speaks during the Opening Ceremony of the 73rd Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Berlinale Palast, February 16, 2023, in Berlin, Germany. (Photo Gerald Matzka/Getty Images)

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The newly approved reforms do not require parliamentary approval.

A press statement aboutthe meeting of government and state culture officials released on March 13 includes a comment from German culture minister Claudia Roth about how the joint decision will strengthen provenance research, more effectively achieve the goals of the Washington Principles, as well as an expectation the reforms will go into effect by the end of the year.

“The joint decision today is a big and important step forward to considerable improvements in the return of Nazi-looted art,” Roth said. “We have agreed a very ambitious timetable.”

The Washington Principles are eleven nonbinding principles that representatives of 44 nations and 13 nongovernmental organizations agreed to on December 3, 1998, after three days of meetings at the State Department’s Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets.

On March 5, the Washington Principles were reinforced through the unveiling of a new “best practices” agreement endorsed by 22 countries, aimed at dealing with many of the legal and financial challenges slowing down the restitution of artworks, books, and other cultural items.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Best Practices give a more precise definition of what is considered Nazi-looted art, identify solutions when provenance research is deficient, and remedy processes that favor current possessors over rightful owners. The Best Practices also urge countries to strengthen restitution efforts.

One lawyer from Berlin who represents the heirs of Jewish collectors whose works were looted by Nazis told the Art Newspaper the German reforms would help resolve deadlocked cases.

“For the first time in 25 years, heirs will get a real chance to be heard by a designated arbitration panel, even if a museum strictly denies that an object in dispute constitutes looted art,” Ulf Bischof told the Art Newspaper. “Heirs no longer have to beg for a third opinion.”

Bischof also expressed hope that the German government and its states stick to the timeline to implement the reforms. “Germany has to pick up some speed in light of its historic responsibility,” he said.

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