Paintings, jewelry, religious artifacts and other cultural treasures looted by the Nazis often passed through several pairs of hands in multiple countries once they were recovered by the Allies after World War II.
Meticulous records were kept, but those are spread among a variety of places that preserve archives. Now, they can all be accessed through a single website.
On Thursday, the National Archives announced the launch of an online portal that provides access to digitized records of looted items with cultural significance. While officials stressed that the database is a work in progress, it represents a milestone in a 15-year effort to improve cooperation between the many institutions that house such records.
"You no longer have to travel around the world and spend a fortune to view the materials," said James Hastings, who coordinated the partnership for the Archives.
Nazis confiscated millions of culturally significant items throughout Europe in the dozen years between Adolf Hitler's rise to power and the end of the war. Much of the plunder was recovered, but countless items were never returned to their rightful owners _ millions of whom were killed in the Holocaust.
"This was a continent-wide theft," said Deborah Dwork, director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. "There are still warehouses full of this stuff."
Eleven institutions in seven countries have agreed to participate in the database, and representatives from eight of those were on hand Thursday to sign the agreement establishing it.
Archives officials said they believe the database will be primarily of interest to scholars, but it will be accessible to anyone who wants to trace what happened to a lost family treasure.
"Anyone who thinks there may be a family interest or an institutional interest in cultural property from this period can now take a look," Hastings said. "It's democratization of access that we think is extraordinary."
The database does not yet have a unified search engine. Users must go to the sites of the individual institutions to pore through their records. U.S. Archivist David Ferriero said he hoped the portal would eventually become as user-friendly as Google, allowing for simple keyword searches of all records.
The records were digitized with help from Footnote.com, an online clearinghouse for historical documents and a subsidiary of Provo, Utah-based Ancestry.com. While the database can be accessed for free at the 44 National Archives facilities around the country and at many public libraries, those who wish to get at it from private computers must be Footnote subscribers.
Footnote's control of the records will expire after five years, said Ferrerio, who described it as a mutually beneficial partnership.
"I have 10 billion pages (in the Archives). If I had my way, I would digitize every one of them," he said. "There's no way the federal government is going to pay for 10 billion digitized images. We're looking for partnerships to be able to accomplish that."
Dwork said the database would allow scholars to do research in hours that previously could have taken months.
"I have done scholarship when I needed to go from place to place, city to city and pull documents," she said. "Access to the material will not make me smarter, but access to the material enables me to do my work better and more efficiently."