By Hanoch Sheps, J.D.
Nothing happens quickly in restitution work, but a recent effort by the Louvre is a step in the right direction. Nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, thousands of art objects looted by the Nazi’s remain in museum collections around the world, including about 2,000 in France. There is no shortage of litigation to recover artworks by heirs, especially in the U.S., seeking return of objects believed to have been stolen or displaced. Current possessors of such works, private individuals and public institutions, are none too pleased to face the prospect of losing the valuables. See for example, our report on Meyer v. Bd. of Regents of the University of Oklahoma.
However, with mounting public pressure, a slowly growing trend exists within museums to self-identify stolen works within their collections. For example, new leadership at a Salzburg museum that was directly involved in a Nazi research mission (‘Ahnenerbe’) during the war initiated a three year investigation into its collection and have begun returning objects to the identified owners. (Salzburg museum returns Nazi looted artefacts, Austrian Times). Blockbuster news stories concerning Nazi-era looted art, such as the Gurlitt “degenerate art” trove found in Germany in 2012 and the upcoming release of a motion picture about the Monuments Men help to encourage voluntary returns, and renew interest in seeking out the rightful owners.
France’s Minister for Culture, Aurelie Filippetti, recently announced the intention of the Louvre and other state museums to return three paintings by the 17th Century Dutch artist Joos de Momper. This announcement comes amidst a renewed effort supported by French President Francois Hollande’s to create a task force of historians, regulators, archivists, and curators to locate heirs who have claims to the thousands of works in France identified as stolen during the war that have gone unclaimed until the present. Members of the French Senate, including Corinne Bouchoux, support such government initiatives and hosted a program to encourage such efforts.
Are the recent restitution efforts too little too late? Thousands of works have been returned, but that represents a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of looted cultural objects. Claimants are aging, statutes of limitation within which to file a claim are running out – not to mention that filing a claim often means years (even decades) of waiting and litigation. Some would argue that this new French initiative directly responds to some of these concerns that the newly proposed French task force will come to the claimants this time. Yet others might find this initiative refreshing in light of the delayed response on the Bavarian authorities’ part in the Gurlitt art trove case. The collection was seized in the winter of 2012, but only this week, in January of 2014, did the task force chair, Ms. Ingeborg Berggreen-Merkel, appoint restitution experts to study the origins and legal ownership of the paintings and drawings found in the trove. (See Diligence Promised in Studying Looted Art, NYT].
Despite these new unilateral efforts by museums, World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder called for greater restitution efforts at the government level, namely that Germany amend the 30-year statute of limitations that claimants typically have to report stolen objects. (Lauder Calls for New Panel to Resolve Nazi Art-Looting Restitution Issues, NYT).
Whether 2014 turns out to be the most restitution heavy year or not remains to be seen. One thing remains clear, however delayed an initiative is, its true value is in its persistence, diligence and perseverance to complete the task.
About the Author: Hanoch Sheps, J.D. is a recent graduate of New York Law School. He may be reached at Hanoch.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: This and all articles are intended as general information, not legal advice, and offer no substitute for seeking representation.