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University of British Columbia Law Review

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Cultural property; Art theft; Hitler; Nazism


While theft of art has a long history and continues to be a modem problem, the loss and destruction of cultural property during the Second World War seemingly eclipsed earlier experiences by virtue of its sheer scope and venality. This process began in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and re-organized that country's civil service. Hitler immediately began to attempt to use the apparatus of the German state to redefine art and culture to reflect the perverse anti-modernist priorities of the Third Reich. This article describes cases in which art stolen by the Nazis has later been claimed by the descendants of the original owners who had died in Nazi concentration camps. A typical scenario involves valuable works of art owned privately in Europe prior to the Second World War. These artworks were either stolen from their owners or became lost in the confusion and desperation of the war period. After the war and often after the original owners have died, the art is discovered in the possession of a museum or a private collector, who usually claims to have no knowledge of the identity of the original owner or the circumstances whereby that person lost possession. The article examines the issues involved in litigation of these cases, and potential international solutions. Despite the increase in cases before courts involving art lost during the Second World War, the enormity of the problem still suggests an international solution based on agreement between states. While there have been ongoing efforts to achieve such understandings, they do not seem to have had much impetus until the last decade of this century.



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