Getting started: Tracking Looted Art

  • Treat your quest as a genealogy project to explore family history and ancestors. The search for a lost work is inevitably a quest to recover identity.
  • Gather all you possess: records, letters, genealogy trees, scrapbooks, newspaper articles, court documents, family photographs. Is there a relative who acted as unofficial historian?
  • Interview older family members with childhood memories of Europe. Start with open-ended, non-threatening questions as simple as the kinds of meals they ate when they were young. Some families are not aware of their history during World War II because older relatives repressed troubling memories in order to survive.
  • Ask questions about what relatives did during the war, where they lived, their jobs, their religion, politics, hobbies and interests — including collecting art.
  • Identify an ancestor to focus research. Does someone remember art hanging on the walls in their homes? Are there photos of home life? Gather the specifics. Is there a history of relatives seeking restitution of art or property?
  • Once you have focused on a family line, dig deeper. Check names against archives of looted objects established by Germany and France, which include list of art works held in trust by state museums. The Louvre currently has devoted a room in the museum to some of these orphaned works. There are many more in other major museums.
  • If you connect a relative and a looted work, develop a profile of the owner along with the art object. National Archives are rich in personal historical material. In France, the National Archives and the National Library hold vast troves of information. Maybe your ancestor received a Legion of Honor or was mentioned in local newspapers.
  • Focus on the work of art. Verify variations in the title. Is it listed as an MNR? These are art works repatriated to France after the war and held today by French museums, which have been waiting for decades for the heirs to claim them. Is it listed in a catalogue raisonnée? Search for information about a sale or records of an auction during the war. Are there records of a claim for restitution?
  • Check restitution documents and records from auctioneers, which are accessible through personal visits to the archives de Paris .  
  • When all else fails, reach out to others who have done their own research. The Orphan Art Project offers support and mentoring, don’t hesitate to contact us.