In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art Restitution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Online Resources
  • Cultural Property, Nationalism, and Cosmopolitanism
  • Art Looting During Armed Conflict

Art History Art Restitution
Victoria Reed
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0173


Art restitution is the return of stolen or improperly traded cultural property to its rightful owner. Critical to determining whether a work of art should be restituted is if it was subject to a transfer that was unlawful or invalid, such as a theft, expropriation, illicit trafficking, or a sale made under duress. The process of restitution therefore hinges on the provenance (history of possession and physical movement) of the object in question, along with a consideration of applicable laws that may govern ownership, import and export, and other ethical and policy frameworks. While there have been disputes over the ownership of works of art for years, the topic grew increasingly important during the 20th century, when many nations passed legislation seeking to prevent the removal of culturally significant artifacts from their borders. Artwork was restituted on a large scale following the widespread displacement of cultural property under the National Socialist regime and during World War II. The rightful ownership of archaeological material became the focus of particular scrutiny after the signing of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In 1990, the United States passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to facilitate claims for Native American human remains, burial goods, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony. It was not, however, until the turn of the 21st century that these issues came fully to the fore in the art world. In the 1990s and early 2000s, high-profile restitution claims for art stolen during the Holocaust and World War II and for antiquities looted and smuggled from their countries of origin prompted participants in the art trade to become more aware of the importance of provenance and rightful ownership. Since then, there have been increasing calls to restitute works of art removed from previously colonized areas, especially in the Global South, to their current countries of origin. Ownership claims have been facilitated by the expansion of the internet, which has made the holdings of museums, commercial galleries, and auction houses publicly accessible. The increasing transparency of the art world and the development of online databases have expedited the resolution of claims. Thanks to such tools, it has become possible more easily to register and locate lost or stolen works of art. As the field of art restitution is relatively new, the body of literature on the topic is principally from the late 20th and early 21st centuries and continues to grow rapidly.

General Overviews

Chamberlin 1983 and Greenfield 1989 were among the first scholarly works to survey international restitution claims; both bring together a broad range of case studies, some of which are rarely discussed elsewhere. Fitz Gibbon 2005 and Hoffman 2006 were published when Holocaust-era thefts and illicitly excavated antiquities were being more widely scrutinized and redressed. Both volumes take the then-current disputes into account. Gerstenblith 2019 is essential for anyone seeking a legal understanding of art restitution issues.

  • Chamberlin, Russell. Loot! The Heritage of Plunder. New York: Facts on File, 1983.

    Chamberlin’s book addresses case studies not often discussed by other scholars, such as the Stone of Scone, the Crown of St. Stephen, and Asante gold from Ghana, along with more frequently analyzed cases such as the Parthenon marbles, excavations in colonial-era Egypt, the Benin bronzes, and plundering by Napoleon and Hitler.

  • Fitz Gibbon, Kate, ed. Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

    Essays written largely though not exclusively by representatives of museums and the art market on the subject of cultural property legislation and restitution. The contributions are generally critical of regulating the market and in support of active trade and collecting. The book focuses on antiquities, though some consideration is given to Nazi-era looting and Indigenous artifacts.

  • Gerstenblith, Patty. Art, Cultural Heritage, and the Law: Cases and Materials. 4th ed. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2019.

    Aimed at law students, this book provides essays from practitioners in the field and summaries of decisive legal cases on topics from Holocaust and World War II looting to the international market and the protection of archaeological sites. Appendices include the full texts of conventions and key pieces of US legislation.

  • Greenfield, Jeanette. The Return of Cultural Treasures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Greenfield examines case studies of restitution claims between governments, including the Parthenon marbles and other artifacts held in the United Kingdom. Chapters deal with American and Canadian case studies, international law and regulations, and the art market. The introduction includes a comprehensive list of art restitution cases to date, and appendices include the texts of international treaties and conventions. The book is presently in its third edition.

  • Hoffman, Barbara T., ed. Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy, and Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A compendium of essays from a wide range of practitioners on the issue of the protection, theft, and restitution of cultural property. Topics include archaeological materials, underwater cultural heritage, intangible cultural heritage, issues specific to Indigenous populations, and dispute resolution. Though a legal text, the book is accessible to a lay audience.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.