9th August 2021

Provenance Research: Restitution of Nazi loot

Basic principles

Provenance research (from the Latin verb “provenire”, to originate) focuses on the origins and history of cultural artefacts. Here special attention is paid to identifying items looted by the Nazis.

Nazi loot or Nazi-confiscated cultural artefacts are objects that were stolen or confiscated from their rightful owners during the Nazi era as the result of racial, political, religious or ideological persecution. Along with objects confiscated by the Nazi authorities, this category also encompasses items which their owners were forced to sell at less than their value, for example to finance their flight abroad.

The foundation for research into Nazi loot was laid by a declaration. made in December 1998 at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. By signing it, the Federal Republic of Germany pledged to identify Nazi loot and find a just and fair solution with its former owners or their heirs. In December 1999, the federal government, the Laender and the national associations of local authorities issued a common statement relating to the discovery and restitution of Nazi-confiscated cultural assets in fulfilment of this pledge.

In recent years, the German National Library has carried out a number of projects involving research into items looted by the Nazis. One of these projects focused on the book collection and distribution centre (Bücherverwertungsstelle) in Vienna. This centre was established in 1938 for the purpose of redistributing books confiscated from Jewish publishing companies, bookshops and private libraries. It was supervised by Albert Paust, a librarian who worked at the Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig. In 1938/39, he had around 500 volumes transferred from the book collection and distribution centre to the Deutsche Bücherei. These volumes were identified and entered into the Lost Art Database as found objects. Since 2018, experts involved in the provenance research project have also been viewing serial titles and publications series on the shelves for the purpose of identifying Nazi loot.

The reserarch carried out by historian Sören Flachowsky on the history of the Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig during the Nazi era has confirmed that the Deutsche Bücherei was already trying to close gaps in its collection by cooperating with the Nazi authorities in 1933. It also seems likely that the Deutsche Bücherei integrated so-called “redistributed loot” into its collection after 1945. This refers to cultural assets which were redistributed several times – e.g. to Nazi organisations, second-hand bookshops or private individuals – after they were confiscated and were therefore only added to public collections after the end of the Nazi era.

In 2019, the German National Library – sponsored by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media – appointed a provenance research expert to pursue this essential research systematically.


For the majority of the Deutsche Bücherei’s holdings, the search for Nazi loot begins in the accession books. For most of the works which were not directly deposited at the Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig in fulfilment of the publishers’ deposit obligation, the accession books contain annotations indicating their origin. If these annotations indicate that the item could be Nazi loot, e.g. because it was deposited by a Nazi organisation, police department or financial authority, it is then subjected to an autopsy, i.e. it is inspected at the shelves.

During the autopsy, we examine whether the work contains provenance indicators such as handwritten names, bookplates or stamps inserted by previous owners. These indicators are photographed and recorded in the database.

The characteristics that indicate the possible previous owners of the work form the basis of the actual historical research, the aim of which is to find out whether the owners were persecuted on racist, political, religious or ideological grounds during the Nazi era. Historic registration files and address books, files preserved from police departments or financial authorities, and databases, including the database of Holocaust victims maintained by the memorial institution Yad Vashem, can help reconstruct the fate of these individuals.

If this research confirms that a work was looted by the Nazis, we search for the heirs of the former owners in order to establish contact with them and initiate the restitution procedure.

Resolved cases

In the following overwiev we document completed restitutions and other agreements reached in the spirit of the Washington Principles.

Rosenfeld, Valentin Victor

Valentin Victor Rosenfeld was born on 2 March 1886 in Vienna and was a lawyer by profession. He also volunteered for the swimming section of the Jewish sports club Hakoah Vienna. During the 1920s, his wife Eva Rosenfeld established a progressive private school, the Hietzing-Schule, in cooperation with Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlington. After the couple separated, Eva Rosenfeld and their son Victor initially moved to Berlin, where she trained as a psychotherapist. In 1936, they emigrated to Great Britain.

Following the annexation of Austria in March 1938, Valentin Rosenfeld also fled to Great Britain, from where he helped numerous members of Hakoah Vienna to emigrate. The property he left in Vienna was confiscated by the Nazis, who then assigned part of his library to the Austrian National Library (ÖNB) in Vienna. Rosenfeld’s collection of Goethe autographs was first sent to the Zentraldepot für beschlagnahmte Sammlungen(Central Depot for Confiscated Collections) then handed over to the ÖNB’s manuscript department. Other parts of his library were spread far and wide by the “Bücherverwertungsstelle” (book collection and distribution centre) in Vienna, an authority set up by the Reich Ministry of Propaganda to distribute books confiscated from Jewish book shops, publishing companies and private libraries.

Three works belonging to Valentin Rosenfeld have been found in the collection of the German National Library in Leipzig, all of which found their way into the collection of the Deutsche Bücherei in January 1939 through the Bücherverwertungsstelle (book collection and distribution centre) in Vienna. Two of the volumes contain Valentin Rosenfeld’s bookplate, while the third – a kind of school magazine from the Hietzing-Schule, a progressive school founded by Eva Rosenfeld, contains a handwritten note with the first name of their son, Victor Rosenfeld. Thanks to the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (Jewish Community of Vienna), it has been possible to establish contact with the family’s heirs. The works were returned to the heirs in June 2021.

Further information:

Murray G. Hall und Christina Köstner, „…allerlei für die Nationalbibliothek zu ergattern…“ Eine österreichische Institution in der NS-Zeit, Wien 2006.

Eintrag „Valentin Rosenfeld“, in: Markus G. Patka und Ignaz Hermann Körner (Hrsg.), Lexikon jüdischer Sportler in Wien 1900-1938 (Begleitpublikation zur Ausstellung “100 Jahre Hoppauf Hakoah” des Jüdischen Museums der Stadt Wien vom 4. Juni bis 7. September 2008), Wien 2008, S. 179-180.

Karen Propp, „The Danube Maidens: Hakoah Vienna Girls‘ Swim Team in the 1920s and1930s“, in: Susanne Helene Betz, Monika Löscher und Pia Schölnberger (Hrsg.), „..mehr als ein Sportverein“. 100 Jahre Hakoah Wien 1909-2009, Innsbruck, Wien u.a. 2009, S. 81-93, hier S. 85-86.

Information about the estate of Eva Rosenfeld in the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna: https://www.freud-museum.at/de/archiv (last retrieved on 23 June 2021)

Eintrag „Valentin Rosenfeld“, in: Wien Geschichte Wiki, zuletzt aktualisiert am 18. März 2021, URL: https://www.geschichtewiki.wien.gv.at/Valentin_Rosenfeld (last retrieved on 23 June 2021).

Cooperation and networking

The systematic confiscation and exploitation of movable assets by the Nazi regime means that expropriated collections are now often scattered far and wide among numerous very different cultural institutions. Cooperative working methods and networking between provenance researchers for the purpose of exchanging data, experiences and research findings is therefore all the more important, particularly to avoid researching the same object more than once.

The staff at the German National Library are therefore represented in a number of networks:

  • Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e.V.
    This association for provenance research brings together more than 300 scientists and experts from all over the world who are dedicated to researching the origins of cultural assets at museums, libraries, archives, universities and the art trade. Its members meet once a year at their annual conference and form working groups to issue practical guidelines on performing, documenting and disseminating provenance research.
  • Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung und Restitution – Bibliotheken (Working Group for Provenance Research and Restitution – Libraries)
    Founded in 2014, this working group consists of provenance researchers active in the library sector. It meets twice a year to exchange experiences and develop proposals for addressing librarians’ concerns in connection with research into Nazi loot. In May 2017, the dbv-Kommission „Provenienzforschung  und Provenienzerschließung (dbv commission on “provenance research and provenance cataloguing”) assumed the function of an office for the working group.
  • Arbeitsgemeinschaft Provenienzforschung in Sachsen (Working group for provenance research in Saxony)
    This working group is an informal network of provenance researchers who work at various cultural institutions in Saxony. They meet twice a year for expert dialogue at working level and are committing to anchoring provenance research more deeply at institutions in Saxony.

The following databases may also be useful when researching items looted by the Nazis:



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