With its Lost Art Database, the German Lost Art Foundation offers present-day heirs and claimants the opportunity to carry out their own search for cultural assets seized as a result of Nazi persecution (referred to in the following as „Nazi-confiscated property“) and report their own lost items. However, the descendants of families persecuted between 1933 and 1945 often do not know anything about the loss or the whereabouts of their property. Under the terms of its statute, the German Lost Art Foundation cannot carry out an active search for heirs; however, as part of its remit, the Foundation provides direct funding for this purpose and offers a continuously updated body of knowledge in the „Search for heirs“ section of its website with information on methodology, processes, research possibilities and sources that can be used in the search for heirs.
The typical steps involved in finding rightful claimants are set out below.
Steps 1 to 3 are an integral part of traditional provenance research:
In the first step, the written records relating to the collection concerned are consulted, if available, in order to determine the probable origin of an object and identify references to the owner’s name. For these investigations, the following documents are the most important:
- receipt documentation, such as receipt books, incoming inventories, accession books, acquisition lists;
- collection documentation, such as collection catalogs, inventory registers, card indexes;
- correspondence from the period in question, such as exchanges of letters relating to the acquisition of an object, inquiries to art dealers, sellers’ offers, mail registers and post books;
- other written records, such as auction lots, annotated auction catalogs, invoices, sales receipts, artwork listings; and
- the objects themselves, such as paintings and graphic prints (notations on back, stickers, inscriptions, customs stamps; for portraits, also: those depicted as reference to the family), books and written texts (bookplates, supralibros, signatures, stamps, dedications, general marks of previous owner), arts and crafts, household goods, textiles (monograms, engravings, coats of arms).
Free databases are likewise available to all provenance researchers. These online databases containing information on individuals,provenance markings and objects may at least help with the names and marks of former owners that are already familiar within the research field.
There are also a number of services for which users must pay. The charges for using these services are eligible for funding by the German Lost Art Foundation and can therefore be taken into account in an application for project funding.
Loss of ownership or possession between 1933 and 1945 covered a wide spectrum, from individual emergency sale, auction, exchange, giving away and fiduciary transfer to acquaintances, through official seizures, confiscation, withholding, forced sale, expropriation and „Aryanization“, to looting and destruction by officials or private individuals. Information about such procedures is provided in particular by:
- the National Socialist Reichsanzeiger (lists of expatriated persons, lists of persons from whom objects were expropriated, lists of institutions from which objects were expropriated), available in libraries or provided in full in digital form by Mannheim University library;
- the National Socialist daily press (advertisements, announcements—also of auctions) available in varying degrees of completeness in local libraries, museums and archives;
- National Socialist administrative records relating to the state, regional/provincial, area/district and party authorities involved in the theft, including tax authority files such as those of the regional finance office with asset lists and buyer lists from the so-called Jewish auctions (in the state archives), police administration files (in the city, district and state archives; Gestapo files in the Federal Archives), customs authority files (in the Federal Archives), cultural administration files (of the provincial museum keeper, provincial curator etc. in the state archives), Nazi district leadership files (including files on „Aryanization“ and „de-Jewing“, the capture of political opponents etc. in present-day city, district and state archives), and many more;
- personal documents that belonged to the victims themselves and people they knew (letters, postcards, diaries, notebooks pre- and post-1945).
If the research into the archive documents belonging to the collection itself does not yield any findings about the family relationships of the victim, reference works and specialist literature and some databases may help further.
Of these, the so-called „gray literature“ (non-formally published works) is usually more fruitful than reference works or databases because this literature often extends beyond mere formal information, describes family histories and mentions important additional details (e.g. emigration destinations, name changes and familial relationships) which can be analyzed as part of the research. Gray literature is collected to a certain extent via the federal state and regional libraries; moreover, it can only be requested in (city and regional) museums, (district, city, special and private) archives and from (historical, memorial and local) societies.
In addition to restitution records and online research tools, the following archive sources are essential for information on the possible existence of Holocaust survivors of a family (i.e. children, grandchildren, spouses, siblings, other family members) and on possible different personal names of present-day legal successors:
- the Residentenliste—the list of Jewish residents in the German Reich 1933–1945 (in the Federal Archives)
- residents’ registration cards (in city archives, state archives)
- citizens’ registers (in museum collections, city archives, state archives)
- address books e.g. for identifying household members or the date of emigration (in libraries, museum collections, city archives, state archives)
- so-called „Aryanization“ and „de-Jewing“ files (in city archives, state archives)
- files of the regional finance offices (including with information on “currency offences“ of family members living abroad)
All of these documents up to the end of the war in 1945 contain information on matrimonial relationships and living circumstances as well as on household and family members and their descendants. Relatives living abroad, or those who had already emigrated at the time the information was gathered, are frequently mentioned.
For steps 4 and 5, research in national archives is possible:
When considering the issue of entitlement to claim, consideration should be given to whether efforts to reach a settlement or compensation have already been made in previous years (up to when the Federal Restitution Law came into force in 1957) on an institutional or private basis. See detailed guidelines 2019.
Previous attempts at retransfer, negotiations about possible relinquishment, agreements relating to the permanent loan of objects and so on and so forth should be reviewed and documented. Personal expressions of intent made by the victim after 1945 (e.g. an entitled person contacted a museum or made statements on the desired treatment of the looted property as part of a restitution procedure) are also included here.
One the one hand, these documents provide information on places of residence and names after 1945. On the other hand, such information is indirectly important for discussions with legal heirs and, where applicable, for the possible request for intervention to the Advisory Commission or for the work of the German Lost Art Foundation with regard to its support in finding a fair and just solution (see step 10).
The Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) and the Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues (BADV) recommend that „the archive documents from the National Socialist era administered by the BADV, Department C2, which have originated in connection with property seizures with regard to persecuted individuals, as well as the available case files are used for provenance research in accordance with the Federal Restitution Law (BRüG)“ (see Implementation of the BRüG).
An inquiry to the BADV is made, on the one hand, to confirm whether the claims to the property of an individual persecuted by the Nazis are already on file there and, on the other hand, to avoid double compensation (in accordance with the Joint Declaration 1999, I), if there were already Federal government compensation payments.
After 1945, Holocaust survivors or their descendants submitted claims for compensation (non-material damages) and restitution (material damages) to the occupying authorities on a case-by-case basis; from 1949 onwards, these were submitted to the restitution offices in the federal states. In addition to information on whether and what compensation and other remuneration efforts have already been undertaken by the state, generally speaking the files mainly provide information on the process of loss of possession and the whereabouts of descendants, relatives and heirs.
For a remote examination, only the records of the Berlin restitution offices are available, and these only to a certain depth: the records are presented in summarized form and cannot be read digitally in their entirety. Research on site in each case is therefore essential.
The restitution records are generally located in the relevant archives at the victim’s last place of residence or, especially in the case of emigrants, at the place of seizure (e.g. international ports).
For steps 6 to 9, international research is also necessary in most cases:
For information to be obtained on the possible present-day whereabouts of family members after the end of the war in 1945, heirs need to have already made contact with national authorities at an earlier point in time (e.g. as part of a restitution request or a claim to a museum for the return of an object). Only in such cases can file-based research be undertaken at national level, including at:
- local courts
- notaries’ offices
- registry offices
- residents’ registration offices
- museum archives (e.g. correspondence on missing cultural assets)
- city archives
- state archives (e.g. restitution records)
- BADV (e.g. restitution records)
- the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Jewish religious communities (providing the descendants have rejoined a Jewish community in Germany), institutions dedicated to remembrance (if genealogical inquiries have already been made to them or documents handed over, e.g. the Moses Mendelssohn Academy)
Other than this, transnational research must be undertaken. The emigration destinations of individual family members can be determined, e.g. (besides the already mentioned reference, gray and specialist literature) through research into the digitized issues of the Jewish exile press (text and advert section), see Digital copies.
Other possibilities (e.g. research into administrative authority files of other countries or the information from these, especially if first names—e.g. Moritz, Moreau, Maurice—or last names—e.g. Kohn, Cohn, Cohen, Cone—have changed in the destination country) are not available at a national level.
In addition, searching genealogical databases is recommended. The genealogy services (such as Ancestry) that cost money can be used free of charge, e.g. on computer terminals at the Emigration Museum BallinStadt in Hamburg and at the German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven.
It can be worth making an inquiry to central information services (such as the International Tracing Service) or international organizations (such as the Leo Baeck Institute or the Jewish Claims Conference) because these institutions often have a genealogical body of knowledge at their disposal. Moreover, quite a few Jewish associations and organizations (such as the Jewish cultural communities or Jewish religious communities) have either already carried out searches for heirs or have established contact with the descendants of people that were persecuted by the Nazis.
Making an inquiry to institutions and networks that are specially dedicated to remembrance (e.g. Yad Vashem) or family research (e.g. JewishGen) is a possible option, as is sending a request for support to national and international genealogy associations (e.g. CompGen). However, processing inquiries like these may be time-consuming and cost money.
For less common names in particular, simple search engine requests, advanced searches and the resulting attempts to establish contact may reveal people who have a particular name. However, this type of research is always associated with the risk of finding people who coincidentally have the same name. The same is true when it comes to searching social networks.
If you know what country the entitled heir currently lives in, making contact with the respective embassy, where applicable, might yield results.
By this stage at the latest, the possibilities for provenance research have been exhausted and, if applicable, the legal advisor (legal office or legal department) of the body responsible for the institution is indispensable.
Nowadays, making contact personally with the previous owner of a confiscated or stolen object is becoming increasingly rare due to demographic reasons. In most cases, any contact made today is with children, grandchildren or other descendants. Establishing who the present-day family members are does not, however, answer the question of whom the object should be restituted to.
When documenting the successors, you are mostly reliant on the assistance of the heirs themselves (e.g. for the provision of information on branches of the family tree and the fate of family members). At this point, it is therefore essential to make active and direct contact with the probable legal heirs because research reaches its limits here.
It is always advisable for contact to be established with empathy and tact: there are cases where the descendants do not know about the earlier persecution of their ancestors, e.g. because the Nazi period and the individual suffering experienced as a result, the damage and the loss of possessions have remained deliberately hidden within the family.
Entitlement to claim is the basic authority to be able to assert claims. This entitlement is of fundamental importance (see, for example, the Joint Declaration, I).It is obtained through the clarification of succession or the reconstruction of the (present-day) community of heirs with the help of wills, inheritance certificates, powers of attorney, solemn declarations or similar documents.
The claim, on the other hand, is the specific right of a person, on an appropriate basis, to call for someone else to do, or refrain from doing, a specifiable action, such as returning an object confiscated as a result of Nazi persecution. With regard to civil law, most claims for recovery of property are already statute-barred, i.e. their (legal) assertion is no longer possible today. According to German law, the person presently in possession of the object has also often become the owner. Specialized lawyers should be consulted in the event of a dispute.
Also against this backdrop, particular importance is attached to the non-legally binding Joint Declaration, as on a moral and ethical level—in the absence of legally enforceable claims—it pursues the objective of return or working together to reach fair and just solutions.
The German Lost Art Foundation offers support for steps 10 and 11:
Contact with the owners should be initiated by the person in possession of the object (a connection with the family has usually already been established to clarify succession, see step 8). Both sides—the present-day owner and the legal heirs—should clarify by mutual agreement how to deal with the object concerned, to which the previous owner was forced to give up his or her ownership or possession.
A restitution acknowledges the claim of present-day heirs. If the cultural heritage institution is interested in reacquiring the restituted object, possibilities can subsequently be discussed as to whether all or some of the pieces may remain in the collection and on what conditions this may be possible.
Scientific and cultural institutions (public or private) and private individuals can be supported by the German Lost Art Foundation in their efforts to find a fair and just solution in line with the Washington Principles and the Joint Declaration of the federal and state governments (see Solutions section of the Lost Art Database, the German Lost Art Foundation’s publication series or the publications of the Coordination Center for Lost Cultural Assets). However, the Foundation does not carry out any return or restitution procedures itself, and does not provide advice in a legal capacity.
If a fair and just solution cannot be reached via the direct contact route or there are differences of opinion, it is advisable to lodge a request for intervention with the Advisory Commission.The request for intervention is lodged by the former owner and their heirs, together with the institutions or persons currently in possession of the cultural asset, by mutual agreement.The Commission works towards an amicable settlement between the parties and does not make any legally binding recommendations.
For information purposes, the German Lost Art Foundation records the restitutions and other just and fair solutions it becomes aware of regarding cultural property expropriated as a result of Nazi persecution in an internal directory.
The recorded restitutions do not only originate from public sources, but also include data that have been confidentially communicated by public and private institutions. Therefore, only a general number of restitutions that have become known to the German Lost Art Foundation is published.
However, in order to achieve the most complete documentation possible, we offer public and private museums, libraries and archives in Germany the opportunity to inform the Foundation via an online form about restitutions or other just and fair solutions in connection with cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution. Subsequent notifications of earlier restitutions can also be submitted via this form.