The procedure concerning an application for the restitution of a work from the National Art Collection can more or less be divided into a receipt phase, an investigation phase and a recommendation phase.
After receiving an application – sometimes supplemented by additional information from the Minister for OCW – the secretariat carries out the administrative processing procedure for the application, informing the applicants in writing that their application has been received. The secretariat then conducts an investigation into the admissibility of the applicants, addressing questions such as: On whose behalf is the applicant acting? What is their relationship to the original owner of the claimed objects? And is it plausible that the applicant is a legitimate claimant/heir? It should be noted that the Restitutions Committee does not determine who the claimants/heirs of the original owner are, but merely investigates whether this is a reasonable assumption. Any questions that result from this investigation are submitted to the applicants in the next step of this phase, in which they are sent a letter outlining the Committee’s procedure. This letter is accompanied by a questionnaire that the applicants should complete. This questionnaire contains all the basic questions that are of importance for investigating the claim. Given the fact that the Committee often deals with foreign applicants, a response period of several weeks has to be taken into account in most cases. The Committee works in Dutch, although correspondence with foreign applicants is also conducted in English.
Investigation and report
During the investigatory phase, the Committee’s research team first makes an inventory of all available documentation, i.e. information sent by the Ministry of OCW, the results of the (archival) research carried out by the Origins Unknown Agency and information submitted by the applicants themselves. Based on this information, the secretariat performs an initial assessment of the questions that the Decree deems important, namely: 1) Is the claimed item of cultural value part of the National Art Collection? 2) Is it plausible that the object was once owned by the alleged original owner?, and 3) Was possession of the item lost involuntarily during the relevant period?
If there is any doubt about the claim passing the test of reasonableness – for instance, if there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the claimed work of art ever belonged to the original owner named by the applicants – the Committee may decide to draw up a draft investigatory report (see below), which summarises the details available at that point in time and any unanswered questions that may have arisen. This gives applicants the opportunity to provide more information regarding their claim and to fill in any gaps.
In practice, claims that do pass the test of reasonableness require further archival and art-historical research to be able to address the questions relevant to the recommendation. Important aspects include details concerning the original ownership, the nature and circumstances of loss of possession and the settlement of any applications for restitution submitted after the war. The current legal and actual status of the work of art is also investigated. The committee’s staff primarily conduct their research in archives kept in the National Archive in The Hague and the Netherlands Institute for Wartime Documentation in Amsterdam, but in virtually all cases files are also consulted in other national and international (archival) institutions. It is sometimes also necessary to enlist external specialists, such as handwriting experts or painting restorers. Applicants are also often asked additional questions. Due to the extensive nature of the research, the use of external institutes and specialists, and the response time that needs to be considered for the applicants, the procedure during the investigatory phase can take a considerable amount of time. The time needed also depends on the scope of the claim.
Information gathered during the investigatory phase is written up in a draft investigatory report. Applicants in the Netherlands are given the opportunity to respond to this draft report within four weeks and foreign applicants are given six weeks. The draft report is also sent to the Minister for OCW, affording them the opportunity to bring any additional facts to the Committee’s attention.
Responses sometimes prompt questions that necessitate further investigation. In some cases, the Committee will deem it necessary to invite the applicants to a hearing, after which the draft report can be amended as required. The definitive investigatory report is finally adopted when the recommendation is adopted (see following phase).
When all the relevant facts of the case have been gathered, the Committee members deliberate the contents of the recommendation during a meeting. After the final recommendation and investigatory report have been adopted, the recommendation is signed by the chair and the secretary/rapporteur. They are then sent to the Minister for OCW, who will make a decision regarding restitution. The Committee informs the applicants that the recommendation has been sent to the Minister, and that the Minister will advise them of the contents of the recommendation and the investigatory report. The Minister informs the applicants of their decision and the contents of the recommendation within six weeks of receiving it. Every recommendation is published on the Committee’s website and in the annual report after the Minister’s decision has been made public.
Length of the procedure
On average, it currently takes 100 weeks to handle a request for recommendation. However, the actual length of the procedure may differ greatly from case to case. The procedure may take longer when the historical research is time-consuming. This may be due to the nature of the research itself, but also to the fact the Committee often depends on third parties for providing information, such as archives at home or abroad. Procedural reasons in particular may also prolong the procedure significantly. In some cases, a work of art may be the subject of multiple claims, requiring several response cycles, and applicants themselves often request extra time, for example to be able to conduct their own research.
Publication and confidentiality
The responsibility for publicising the result lies initially with the Minister, who sends the applicants the decision on their claim enclosing the Committee’s recommendation. The Restitutions Committee will not go public with its recommendation until the applicants have been notified of the Minister’s decision. They do not publicise the applicants’ identity. The Committee will request the applicants’ consent to research personal details and include them in reports and recommendations, as the subject matter concerned may be sensitive. The Committee is also obliged to maintain confidentiality with regard to documents that come from (partially) confidential archives and/or other documents. In its investigatory reports, the Committee will, wherever it can, only refer to them in the form of quotations and acknowledgements of sources.