We help Holocaust victims and their heirs recover Nazi-looted art. Here’s how the lessons we’ve learned can help Ukraine reclaim its cultural property stolen by Russia

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During their brutal rule in Europe, the Nazis systematically looted and destroyed art and other cultural property in an attempt to erase Jewish culture as part of their effort to exterminate the Jewish people. Although the horrific experience of the Holocaust stands alone in its barbarity and enormity, the looting and destruction of artworks throughout occupied Ukraine by Russian forces today is a means of erasing Ukrainian culture and identity. It took some 50 years before avenues were developed to help the heirs of Holocaust victims to reclaim looted art, and intense legal battles were, and continue to be, needed to vindicate their rights. Ukraine will likely face similar challenges in recovering its looted artwork–and the lessons we’ve learned in successfully recovering Nazi-looted art will be an invaluable aid in these efforts. 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, Russian forces have systematically looted and destroyed art and other cultural property. About 10,000 objects were reportedly looted from the Kherson Regional Art Museum alone. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has verified damage to more than 342 cultural icons including religious sites, museums, buildings of historical interest, and monuments. This is not a happenstance of war but a concerted effort by Russia to eliminate Ukraine’s cultural identity.

For Jewish heirs seeking to reclaim art stolen from their families during the Holocaust, decades passed before the extent of Nazi looting in Europe was widely acknowledged and documented and steps were taken to aid in recovering looted works. The Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, adopted in 1998 by 44 nations at the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, marked an important turning point, providing a formal international convention acknowledging the existence of enormous amounts of Nazi-looted art and making clear that means should be developed to ensure that the original owners of such property are provided with the opportunity to reclaim it.  

Ukraine will face daunting obstacles to its efforts to reclaim its looted artifacts. For example, it will likely be difficult to determine the location of looted artworks. Furthermore, even if war were not raging, claims brought directly to Russia will prove impossible to succeed since its government will likely contend that any properties seized are simply “spoils of war” that cannot be reclaimed, especially if Russia continues to deny that Ukraine is an independent sovereign nation.  

However, there are other ways for Ukraine to pursue the return of its property, for example, when it is found outside of Russia. The most successful course of action would likely be to investigate and target looted artworks that found their way into private collections or even public repositories like museums, and to bring lawsuits to recover them. Support from the nations where these artworks are found will be critical. The U.S. government has committed itself to helping to prevent the importation of such stolen works into the United States, seizing them and returning them to Ukraine. Just recently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, through the Department of Homeland Security, returned 10 stolen artifacts to President Zelensky that had been seized by the authorities at JFK Airport.  

Although it took decades, international conventions and successful lawsuits pushed museums and private collectors to be more vigilant about assessing the provenance of their collections to ensure that they were not in possession of Nazi-looted art. The same standards that were developed for the restitution of Nazi-looted art, and antiquities looted from nations in other circumstances, should be applied in the case of looted Ukrainian cultural property.  

We urge the international community to convene a conference, similar to the Washington Conference, to instruct countries and art market stakeholders to be vigilant about avoiding the acquisition of Ukrainian cultural property and returning such property in their possession.  

Ukraine will confront the same obstacles faced by sovereign nations and the families of Holocaust victims, such as tracing the provenance of property back to Ukraine. But with the help of researchers and the goodwill of governments around the world as well as the art world, these challenges can once again be overcome. 

Howard N. Spiegler and Lawrence M. Kaye are art law attorneys in New York City.

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