Christie's Auction House honors 25 years of Nazi-confiscated art restitution efforts

Christie's Restitution Department will organize a year-long, worldwide series of events.

File photo of a U.S. soldier viewing art stolen by the Nazi regime and stored in church at Ellingen, Germany (photo credit: REUTERS)
File photo of a U.S. soldier viewing art stolen by the Nazi regime and stored in church at Ellingen, Germany
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Leading auction house Christie’s Restitution Department recently revealed plans to host a year-long series of programs honoring 25 years of the Washington Principles, an international agreement that progressed the restitution of Nazi-confiscated art.

In December 1998, representatives from over 40 countries and several non-governmental organizations met in Washington, DC for the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets.To address the widespread theft and seizure of art by the Nazis from 1933-1945, the conference formulated 11 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art that established new international guidelines for locating, researching, and recovering stolen art.

The Washington Principles

“The Washington Principles are the very bedrock of the work that Christie’s Restitution team has done for many years: research into the 1933-1945 ownership history of artworks that Christie’s plans to offer for sale,” Christie’s Global Head of Restitution Richard Aronowitz said in a press release.

“When we discover a loss, a malign change of ownership, or a forced sale that was not addressed and remedied after World War II, the Washington Principles gives parties the framework to address these issues, even many decades after they occurred.”

"The Washington Principles are the very bedrock of the work that Christie’s Restitution team has done for many years."

Richard Aronowitz, Christies Global Head of Restitution
A woman walks past artworks at the exhibition ''Gurlitt: Status Report. An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany'' during a media preview at Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin, Germany, September 13, 2018 (credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)A woman walks past artworks at the exhibition ''Gurlitt: Status Report. An Art Dealer in Nazi Germany'' during a media preview at Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin, Germany, September 13, 2018 (credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)

In its own website’s words, “Christie’s has the largest and most experienced Restitution team of any international auction house.” The team addresses Nazi-era and World War II art theft, particularly losses of Jewish collectors from 1933–1945, through confiscation and forced sales.

Perhaps the most well-publicized example of restitution under the Washington Principles came in 2006צ when five Gustav Klimt paintings were returned to the heirs of the Bloch-Bauer family. Maria Altmann, the woman who spearheaded this restitution case, was very close with Chairman Emeritus of Christie’s Americas Stephen Lash. She eventually chose Christie’s to facilitate the sales of the paintings, one of which broke the record for the most expensive painting ever sold.

“Christie’s has the largest and most experienced Restitution team of any international auction house.”s

Christie's website

A more recent example of Christie’s restitution efforts, is the recovery and sale of the Kainer collection, specifically Edgar Degas’s “Danseuse” in 2009 and Pissarro’s “The Anse des Pilotes, Le Havre” in 2022.

As part of Christie’s 2023 program they call Reflecting on Restitution, “scholars, legal experts, researchers and interested parties will meet in Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin, London, New York as well as throughout the United States, and Tel Aviv, to share and discuss important stories, ideas and perspectives.”

Christie’s will kick off Reflecting on Restitution with a public exhibition by French contemporary artist Raphaël Denis on January 27 in Paris. “The exhibition will feature a series of installations that form an extremely precise fragmentary reconstitution of artworks lost to confiscation, looting, or forced sale by Jewish collectors in France,” described Christie’s in a press release.

Following events in Amsterdam, Vienna, and London, Christie’s will host a summer walking tour of Berlin highlighting former Jewish-owned art dealerships, auction houses and areas where Nazis used to store and sell looted art. 

Come fall, Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries in New York will host a panel discussion on the “evolution of the restitution process following the Washington conference.” To conclude the year-long program in honor of 25 years of the Washington Principles, Christie’s will hold a conference at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on restitution research.

“As someone who was there when the Washington Principles were created, and who has been proud to help create and strengthen Christie’s Restitution Department, I look forward to continuing our work,” commented Christie’s Americas chairman Marc Porter in a press release.