Skip to main content

Provenance in the World War II Era | 1933 – 1945

From the time it came into power in 1933 through the end of World War II in 1945, the Nazi Regime and its collaborators orchestrated a system of confiscation, coercive transfer, looting, and destruction of cultural property and artwork throughout Europe on an unprecedented scale. Millions of objects were unlawfully appropriated and often forcibly taken from their rightful owners, including private citizens; victims of the Holocaust; public and private museums and galleries; and religious, educational, and other institutions. Some of these objects ultimately were transferred, in good faith and without knowledge of their prior unlawful appropriation, through the legitimate market and may have been acquired by museums.

Following World War II, the Allied Forces undertook tremendous efforts to return objects to their countries of origin and original owners. However, by the 1990s, the extensive postwar restitution efforts to return unlawfully seized objects to their rightful owners did not lead to a complete and comprehensive restoration. Beginning in 1998, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) (formally the American Association of Museums), issued guidance for museums concerning objects that may have been unlawfully appropriated during the Nazi Era. AAMD and AAM, in an agreement reached with the Presidential Commission for Holocaust Assets (PCHA) in October 2000, further recommended that museums make all currently available information about certain objects accessible online for continued public research. Adhering to these guidelines, museums should identify objects in their collections that were created before 1946 and acquired by the museum after 1932, that underwent a change of ownership during the Nazi Era (1933 – 1945), and that were or might reasonably be thought to have been in continental Europe between those dates (“covered objects”).

The Smithsonian is committed to implementing the AAMD and AAM guidelines and subsequent amendments, and working to identify objects that fall under the scope of these guidelines, giving research priority to European paintings and Judaica, with ancillary emphasis on sculpture produced before 1946.

Back to Top