US Museums Are Refusing To Return Art Stolen By Nazis

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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United States museums are refusing to return Nazi-confiscated artwork by stalling and often purposefully undergoing court hearings to allow the statute of limitations to run its course.

During Germany’s World War II Nazi reign it became common protocol to ransack Jewish homes in search of valuables. Several of the world’s most beloved and highly prized pieces of artwork were displaced in the process.

In a testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Tuesday, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria, Ronald Lauder, stressed while Nazis looted precious antiquities decades ago, the “crime continues to stain the world of art” today.

Forty-five different nations agreed to what are known as the Washington Principles to help combat this issue in 1998. The Terezin Declaration, agreed upon in 2009, urged the signees to establish legal processes and facilitate solutions for returning stolen art, and “Recognizing that despite those [Washington Principles] achievements there remain substantial issues to be addressed, because only a part of the confiscated property has been recovered or compensated.”

In the majority of instances, minimal to no effort has been made to return the art. In doing so, Lauder contends that “foreign governments, private collectors and respected museums have all worked since World War II to rob these Holocaust survivors of their rightful possessions.” The lack of cooperation also compels claimants to spend large amounts of cash on legal fees to retain ownership of precious artifacts.

Texas Sen. [crscore]John Cornyn[/crscore], joined by Sens. [crscore]Ted Cruz[/crscore], Chuck Schumer and [crscore]Richard Blumenthal[/crscore], introduced the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, or HEAR Act, to combat these legal discrepancies and to “ensure that American law encourages the resolution of claims on Nazi-confiscated art on the merits, in a fair and just manner.”

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley praised the bill for continuing the fight against Nazi atrocities.

Arabella Yip, associate general counsel at Yale University, details in an essay how jurisdictional issues and lack of uniformity create complex “choice-of-law” issues. A Southern District of New York federal legal dispute in 2007 titled “Schoeps v. The Museum of Modern Art” (MoMA) highlights this dilemma.

Jewish art collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was in possession of the famous Picasso painting called “Boy Leading a Horse,” but was forced to sell it under Nazi coercion. Former MoMA chairman William Paley later purchased it in Switzerland and bequeathed it to MoMA following his death in 1964. MoMA argued that since the point of sale was in Switzerland, Swiss law inherently governed the transaction.

Julius Schoeps claims his great uncle von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was forced by Nazis to sell the painting. Schoeps maintains New York law should apply since New York has “a greater interest than Switzerland in the outcome of the case.”

The judge prescribed a confidential settlement agreement because of the variance in international law.

Norton Simon Museum of Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, museums in California and New York, respectively, are both fighting battles in court over paintings stolen by Nazis.

Some paintings plundered by the Nazis have been recovered, like “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” by Gustav Klimt, which was returned to Bloch-Bauer’s niece.

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