The Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, signed by 44 countries in 1998, provide guidelines for the investigation of art that may have been looted by the Third Reich, and have allowed for the restitution of tens of thousands of works of art, books, and other objects. Yet, writes Stuart Eizenstat—one of the negotiators of the Washington Principles—much stolen artwork remains at large. In 2016 and 2018 Congress passed measures plugging certain legal loopholes that could interfere with the restitution of art to its rightful owners and their heirs:
Russia and a handful of other European nations that supported the Washington Principles have largely ignored or barely implemented them. Provenance research is a low priority in Europe’s public museums and nonexistent in its private collections; looted art still trades in the European market with little hindrance. De-accession laws prevent public museums from returning art under any circumstances.
Fortunately, the Washington Principles continue to exert a moral force. . . . [I]n late November, more than 1,000 representatives and stakeholders from more than ten countries gathered in Berlin for three days to measure our progress after twenty years and chart a road map for next steps. The Trump administration sent Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Thomas Yazdgerdi and me to recommit the U.S. to the international effort to return these personal and cultural treasures to the families to which they belong. We know this is the work of more than any single administration, indeed more than any single generation. . . .
No self-respecting government, art dealer, private collector, museum, or auction house should trade in or possess art stolen by the Nazis. We must all recommit ourselves to faithfully implementing the Washington Principles before Holocaust survivors breathe their last breath. We owe it not only to those who lost so much in the Holocaust but also to our own sense of moral justice.