Terms of Art: Understanding the Mechanics of Dispossession During the Nazi Period

The criteria for determining whether objects lost between 1933 and 1945 in a manner that justifies restitution were articulated by the Allied powers in 1943 and then codified in postwar restitution laws. In the modern era of Holocaust-era asset restitution, those standards were replaced by abstract phrases such as Nazi confiscated art, forced sale and sale under duress without any qualifications attached. But what is meant by these terms? Did the framers of modern restitution principles intend for the definitions promulgated by the Allies and postwar restitution laws to dictate the way these terms are interpreted?

The 2009 Terezin Declaration attempted to further develop the principles set forth in Washington in 1998 and listed additional acts of spoliation, though it failed to define them.  Since the Washington and Prague Holocaust Era Asset Conferences, international discussions have primarily focused on the need for provenance research, the sharing of documentation and information, and the concept of “just and fair” solutions. Seldom is attention given to fully exploring, understanding and classifying the mechanisms and circumstances of loss.

Because there are no international guidelines on how to interpret these terms in the context of involuntary transactions that occurred in Nazi-controlled Europe, there are inconsistencies across and within groups of practitioners in the field on how to designate and characterize various forms of loss. This lack of common understanding creates uncertainty and incongruity with respect to restitution and compensability. It frequently results in protracted debates about whether the persecution endured by an artwork’s owner was such that his/her loss of the artwork could be deemed involuntary, thereby hindering and often thwarting the resolution of claims.


This symposium aims to explore from the historical, art historical and practical perspectives and across practitioner groups, what it means to describe involuntary loss using a specific term. We are seeking papers from historians of the Nazi period and practitioners in the field of art restitution that will serve as a basis for discussion of these terms.

The symposium will include expert paper presentations on the mechanics and process of dispossession and panel-led discussions among claimant representatives, attorneys, members of the art trade, cultural institutions, provenance researchers, historians and art historians.

Following the symposium, accepted papers will be published as a free online book. The goal of the publication is to further the dialogue concerning this issue and promote greater understanding about the mechanics of dispossession as they relate to claims for artwork involuntarily lost as a result of Nazi persecution.

Our aim is to inform and guide future discussions about the disparate views on these historical events and how a common understanding of these terms can effectively contribute to resolving claims in a more consistent and expeditious manner.

Kindly note the symposium will not address the issue of flight goods (Fluchtgut).


This symposium will consist of both paper presentation sessions and panel discussion sessions. Both formats will allow time for audience participation.

It is our intention to foster an environment conducive to candid dialogue about the mechanics of spoliation and our understanding of what those methods entailed.

A schedule and program will be posted here once they have been finalized.