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Women's Month: 4 women who fought to reclaim art stolen by the Nazis


Celebrating the International Women´s Month we bring to you the contributions of women in art restitution that was confiscated by the nazi regime.

During and after the Second World War, members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program bravely fought to safeguard cultural property and return art stolen by the Nazis. These service members and civilians, many pulled from the world’s elite art institutions, were known as the Monuments Men, inspiring such films as The Train (1964) and George Clooney's Monuments Men (2014). But among their ranks were several pioneering women, who lent critical expertise and dedication to the cause.

These Monuments Women worked tirelessly to document and track down looted art and cultural objects. Their important efforts were but the beginning of the long history of restitution that continues to this day.

In 1998, an international conference established the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. The 11 guidelines ushered in a new wave of restitution, positing a way forward for victims and their heirs to research, locate, and, where possible, recover missing art and lost histories. Leading this wave was Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee who in her eighties waged a successful legal battle for the return of paintings by Gustav Klimt that were seized from her family by the Nazis.

This year, on the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles, Christie’s is proud to host Reflecting on Restitution, a global programme of events to discuss important stories and topics in the field, including a discussion with E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who represented Ms. Altmann in the restitution of the Klimts.

‘Restitution is also about recovering history, and it is important that we celebrate the underappreciated history of the tenacious female pioneers of our field,’ said Andrea Lehmann, a senior researcher in Christie’s Restitution Department.  

The following women made indelible contributions to restitution efforts and paved the way for future generations in the pursuit of justice and the return of Nazi-confiscated property.


Rose Valland

With degrees in art history from the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne, the French-born Rose Valland was working at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris when in 1940 it was commandeered by the Nazis. Keeping her knowledge of the German language a secret, she risked her life to spy on the Nazis’ transport of stolen art. She surreptitiously recorded detailed notes that proved essential in recovery efforts.


Ardelia Hall

The American art historian Ardelia Hall held positions at the Department of Asian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Harvard-Yenching Institute before she was recruited by the Far East Division of the Office of Strategic Services in 1943 for her extensive background in Asian art.  She personally oversaw the return of 1,300 items, including a Monet that was returned to the Rothschild family in Paris. In 1952, she famously returned a portrait of St. Catherine by Rubens to Germany that had gone missing from the Düsseldorf museum during the war.


Anne Olivier Bell

Perhaps best known for her seminal edition of the diaries of Virginia Woolf. At the division’s office in Bünde, Germany, she coordinated the restitution procedures and also led the restitution of thousands of bronze church bells, some dating back to the 12th century, that had been seized by the Nazis to melt down into cannons and ammunition.


Maria Altmann

She is noted for her ultimately successful legal campaign to reclaim from the Government of Austria five family-owned paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Altmann's struggle inspired the film "The Woman in Gold" where Helen Mirren shines as the Jewish refugee in the battle to recover the historic work of Kimt stolen by the Nazis and rightfully belonging to Altmann's fam

The release of five Klimt paintings to Mrs. Altmann in 2006 marked a major victory for restitution of artworks stolen by the Nazis.



(Article adapted from Chritie's, March 2023)

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