The “Advisory Commission on the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution, especially Jewish property” was formed in 2003 on the basis of an agreement between the German federal government, the federal states and the leading municipal associations. The Commission’s activities are based on the Washington Conference Principles of 1998 and the 1999 Joint Declaration of the German federal government, the federal states and the leading municipal associations to locate and return cultural assets confiscated as a result of Nazi persecution.
The Commission originally consisted of eight members. Since the agreement between the German federal government, the federal states and the municipalities was revised at the end of 2016, it may now include up to ten members. Independent persons with legal, ethical, cultural or historical expertise who do not hold prominent political office may be appointed to the Commission. The members of the Commission act in a voluntary capacity. They are appointed by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in agreement with the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK) and the leading municipal associations. Initially, members were appointed for an unlimited period, but new appointments made since 2016 are now limited to a maximum period of ten years.
The Commission may be called upon in the event of disputes concerning the return of cultural assets seized from their owners as a result of Nazi persecution during the National Socialist regime from 30 January 1933 to 8 May 1945, in particular from Jewish victims of Nazi oppression. The request for intervention may be lodged by the former owner or their heirs, or by institutions or persons currently in possession of the cultural asset. The holders of the cultural asset are public institutions to which the Washington Principles and the Joint Declaration directly apply, as well as private institutions holding cultural property in Germany who are bound by these Principles. Furthermore, private individuals who hold cultural property may also lodge a request with the Commission provided they also make a binding declaration in line with the Washington Principles and the Joint Declaration. The prerequisite for intervention by the Commission is the agreement of both sides to enter into mediation with the Commission which, where appropriate, results in a recommendation by the Commission, and to act on this.
At every stage of the process, the Commission works towards an amicable settlement between the parties. It may make recommendations to settle disputes. When issuing advice and recommendations, the Commission takes into account in particular the circumstances leading to the loss of ownership of the cultural property and the circumstances in which the cultural property was acquired by the present owner, as well as any investigations undertaken into the provenance of the cultural property. The parties receive a written version of the Commission’s recommendation and the reasons supporting it. Both of these are also published on the German Lost Art Foundation’s website.
In 2003, the following persons were appointed to the Commission: former Federal President Dr. Richard von Weizsäcker, former president of the German Bundestag Prof. Rita Süssmuth, former president of the Federal Constitutional Court Prof. Jutta Limbach, art historian Prof. Thomas Gaethgens, philosopher Prof. Günter Patzig, law and social philosopher Prof. Dietmar von der Pfordten, historian Prof. Reinhard Rürup and philosopher Prof. Ursula Wolf. In 2008, the art historian Prof. Wolf Tegethoff was appointed as Prof. Gaethgens’ successor; in 2011, the diplomat and former Minister of Justice Dr. Hans-Otto Bräutigam was appointed as the successor of Prof. Patzig and at the beginning of 2016 the former president of the Federal Constitutional Court, Prof. Hans-Jürgen Papier, was appointed as the successor of Dr. von Weizsäcker. At the end of 2016, Marion Eckertz-Höfer, former president of the Federal Administrative Court, was appointed as Prof. Limbach’s successor. Historian Prof. Raphael Gross and the former director of the American Academy Berlin, Dr. Gary Smith, were appointed as new members.
Prof. Limbach was the elected chairwoman of the Commission from 2003 until her death in September 2016. Prof. Gaethgens was deputy chairman until 2008; he was then succeeded in the post in 2008 by Prof. Rürup, who has acted as chairman since the end of 2015 due to the illness and death of Prof. Limbach.
The German Lost Art Foundation carries out organizational and administrative tasks to support the Advisory Commission. The head of the Department for General and Administrative Matters, Dr. Michael Franz, is responsible for the preparation, implementation and follow-up of Commission meetings. He is also the contact person for claimants.