Activities by Country

Historical Background

The Soviet Union suffered great damage from the Nazi invasion in World War II. Millions of civilians perished, and the Soviet military suffered enormous losses. Cultural treasures were either looted by Nazi troops or were destroyed during military engagements or as part of the Nazi program of eliminating Slavic culture as being "inferior."

As the war neared an end, the Soviet government, in response to the damage wrought by the Nazis, formed "Trophy Brigades" to collect paintings and other cultural objects from Germany and other Axis powers and to ship these items home as compensation for the cultural destruction suffered by the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, many of the works of art that were taken to the Soviet Union by the Trophy Brigades had previously been stolen from victims of the Holocaust by the Nazis or their allies. While the Soviet Union did return many cultural objects to former "east bloc" countries during the 1950s and the 1970s, many of the artworks taken by the Trophy Brigades, including art stolen from victims of the Holocaust, still remain in Russia today.

1997 Law and 2000 Amendment
Given the enormous scale of the losses suffered by the Russian people during World War II, there is much sentiment in the Russian Federation to retain the art that was taken by the Trophy Brigades and that still remains in Russia. Indeed, a law entitled "On Cultural Treasures Transferred to the USSR during World War II and Held in the Russian Federation" was enacted in 1997 by the Duma with the intent to ensure that the art remained located in Russia. (click to view law)  Boris Yeltsin had twice vetoed earlier versions of the law as contrary to international agreements made by the former Soviet Union and binding upon the Russian Federation. Twice the Duma overrode his veto, thus throwing the proposed law to the Constitutional Court. Recognizing the obligations of the Russian Federation under international agreements, and the rights afforded to the owners of property under the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the Constitutional Court ruled that Nazi persecutees could pursue their claims in courts of the Russian Federation (click to view court decision). The Duma, acknowledging that the new law would have had the undesirable result of preventing the return of art that was stolen by the fascists from victims of the Holocaust, enacted an amendment to the law in April, 2000. This amendment provides that a claim by a foreign government may be made for art that was stolen from persecutees of the Axis powers, provided that the claim is made within 18 months following the publication by the Russian government that the art is currently held in Russia. (click to view amendment)

A potential problem with the law, as amended, is that it does not appear to permit individuals to make claims directly with the Russian government for the return of art. Under the law, only governments may file claims for art. Accordingly, if an individual wished to obtain the return of art under the law, the individual would have to persuade a government to file a claim for the art and to deliver the art to the individual if the claim is successful. In addition, the law appears to require that the government that files a claim for the return of art be the government of the country from which the art was stolen. The rightful owners of the art may not, however, presently reside in the country from which the art was stolen. Moreover, some countries, such as Hungary, are currently unwilling to return art looted during the Holocaust to victims who reside in other countries.

Currently, as noted above, the only avenue directly available to individual claimants for the restitution of art is litigation against the government in court. Court proceedings, however, are expensive and time consuming, and individual claimants who do not reside in Russia are likely to be intimidated by suing the Russian Federation government in its own courts.

In order to provide individual claimants with a means of obtaining the return of art at less cost and in a shorter time than is likely in a litigation, a streamlined claims procedure for individual claimants should be created under the aegis of a government agency charged with reviewing and resolving claims.

To its credit, however, in order to carry out the mandate of the law, the Russian Federation has, pursuant to Resolution of the Russian Federation Government of March 11, 2001, No. 174, established an interdepartmental panel to coordinate and direct the review of art and other cultural objects held by the Russian government in order to identify items that were relocated to Russia as a result of World War II and to prepare a list of these items. The panel is called the "Interdepartmental Panel on Cultural Treasures Relocated as a Result of World War Two" and is chaired by Mikhail E. Shvydkoi, the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation. A series of implementing regulations were promulgated under the Resolution. (click to view policy1) , (click to view policy2)

Cooperation Agreement with Research Project on Art & Archives
In a further step to implement the law, on December 4, 2001, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation entered into a Cooperation Agreement with the Research Project on Art & Archives, Inc. ("RPA&A;"), a not-for-profit organization co-chaired by Ronald S. Lauder and Edgar M. Bronfman. Under the Cooperation Agreement, the Ministry of Culture and RPA&A; will, among other things, organize projects to examine the archives of Russian cultural institutions in order to identify any works of art or cultural objects stolen from victims of the Holocaust by the Nazis or their allies and later taken to the Soviet Union. Lists of any such works of art or cultural objects will be published on the Internet.(click to view Cooperation Agreement)

Descendants of Hungarian collectors whose art was first taken by the Nazis and later removed to the Soviet Union by the Soviet Trophy Brigades have begun to raise claims in the Russian Federation for the art that belonged to their families before Hungary joined the Axis alliance. None of these individuals has lived in Hungary since they were driven out; they are today citizens of several different countries.

The Commission for Art Recovery will test the effectiveness of the procedures instituted by the Russian government under the law and the willingness of the Russian government to return art and other cultural objects by making a claim on behalf of the rightful owners of a major collection.

The Commission for Art Recovery is hopeful that, as these and other claims are made and proven to the Russian government, the art that is returned will be returned in a manner that ensures that rightful owners of the art will in fact receive the art.