Hundreds of thousands of works of art and household items, some potentially worth millions of pounds, are still missing, and the new catalogue could lead to a surge in high-profile restitution claims.
The catalogue, which includes historical documents from several European archives, will be available to the public through a website hosted by the US National Archives and Records Administration.
The names of victims, perpetrators, artists and works of art will be listed, making it simple for researchers to trace lost works.
Anne Webber, who co-chairs the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said the catalogue was a “major step forward in international co-operation to help resolve these long outstanding issues”.
The records, dating from 1939-61, range from seizure orders and inventories to interrogation reports of art dealers and reports of the transfer of looted works to neutral countries. The files describe the looting of Jewish households by Nazi agencies, as well as plans by Adolf Hitler to establish a Führermuseum with the seized art in his home town of Linz.
Ms Webber, announcing the launch of the catalogue in Washington, said it had been “enormously difficult” for families to find records of stolen art.
Some of the most eye-catching sales of works in recent years have been as a result of their restitution to Jewish families, after 1998’s Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets, which established new principles for victims seeking to make claims.
A Gustav Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer belonging to the Austrian Gallery in the Belvedere Palace, Vienna, was ordered by an Austrian court to be returned to the heirs of the Bloch-Bauer family in 2006. It was later sold to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie in New York for a reported $135m, then the most expensive work of art sold.
Lucian Simmons, world-wide head of Sotheby’s restitution department, said the catalogue might bring some new claims to the fore, but would also clear the provenance of works that had been under a shadow.