The Restitution of Looted Cultural Property in Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria, 1945–1998

Dr. Bianca Gaudenzi

The restitution of looted cultural heritage is one of the most widely debated topics of the year. Countless bottles of ink have been spent over what has emphatically been described as the "biggest art theft in history", and new provenance works now appear on a monthly basis. Yet very few studies have so far endeavoured to historicise such emotionally-charged subject within the bigger framework of postwar European history. This project analyses the process of restitution of looted cultural property in post-war Italy, the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria from the end of the Second World War to the signing of the "Washington Declaration on Nazi-confiscated Art" in 1998. Conceived as a transnational history of restitution practices as they unfolded in the three main post-fascist Western European countries, the project investigates the impact of restitution during and after the Cold War along three main lines of enquiry: the (re)construction of local, national and European communities; the process of coming to terms with Europe's fascist past and the institutionalisation of supranational policies for the protection of cultural heritage. Arguing that heritage and cultural property played a vital role in these three countries' quest to rebuild their communities after the war, this project will enquire into the extent to which restitution practices (or lack thereof) contributed to the process of community building between 1945 and 1998.
Designed as a social and cultural history of postwar Austria, (West) Germany and Italy, the study investigates the interplay between public discourses on restitution – present especially in political speeches, parliamentary debates and the press, aimed at staging restitution as a cathartic rite de passage – and everyday restitution practices implemented by restitution committees, judicial and financial institutions and museums. The project thereby combines a focus on specific communities and actors – including politicians, journalists, lobbyists, museum curators and rightful owners – with a discourse analysis at local, national and European level. While local communities and actors will provide essential empirical case studies, these will be integrated into broader political discourses through a careful analysis of public debates, political speeches and press coverage on one hand and of day-to-day activities of national restitution committees and transnational Jewish agencies on the other.

Dr. Bianca Gaudenzi
Project Researcher
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