By Debra S. Friedmann*
On June 17, 2015, the New York County Lawyer’s Association (the “NYCLA”) hosted an event entitled “Murder to Museums: Recent Cases and Ethical Considerations in Nazi Looted Art,” with remarks by Raymond Dowd from Dunnington Bartholow & Miller LLP, and introduced by the Honorable Barbara Jaffe, acting justice in the New York State Supreme Court. Dowd is one of the program chairs of the Art Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice Institute, scheduled to hold its 8th annual conference in November 2015.
Dowd, who has represented numerous claimants with title dispute cases in U.S. courts, introduced the topic for the evening with a few examples of ongoing restitution cases, including the recent effort to return Camille Pissarro’s painting, “La Bergère Rentrent des Moutons,” from the University of Oklahoma. The concept of art restitution, Dowd explained, began with the Lieber Code, also known as Executive Order 100, ordered by President Lincoln in 1863 and later included in the Hague conventions in 1899 and 1907. The code sought to protect classical works of art and libraries and banned the sale or donation of art removed from enemy nations.
Recent movies such as “The Monuments Men” (2014) and “Woman in Gold” (2015) brought Nazi art restitution to the forefront of art and legal discussions, begging the question, how did the Nazis take possession of art collections that belonged to Jews? Dowd explained that the Nazi regime demanded regular declarations of property from Jews and systematically transferred ownership of all Jewish assets by forcing Jews to relinquish power of attorney to an assigned “Aryan trustee.” This Nazi system that funded their war efforts appears to abide by the law. Dowd suggested that the legal appearance of these sham transactions with blocked bank accounts has confused historians and judges alike when trying to decide if a piece of art was sold fairly or forcibly.
With so many stolen works scattered in museums around the world, Dowd questioned whether museums are doing enough to investigate their holdings and return the looted work to their rightful owners. Though the U.S. State Department has regularly shown support for Nazi restitution, the U.S. federal court system has nevertheless rejected many of these claims, and in some circumstances, ruled in favor of museums that have sued the Jewish heirs for extortion.
Dowd introduced some of the hurdles, such as laches (the undue delay in obtaining relief), statute of limitations, and the claim that the sales were voluntary, that he has incurred in his own work representing heirs of Holocaust survivors. In Dowd’s case In re Flamenbaum, the rejection of the laches argument to bar the return of a third century golden tablet belonging to the Temple of Ishtar was instrumental as support for other cases that similarly would need to argue against laches. This subject was particularly timely in light of the recent Cassirer v. Spain appellate decision against Claude Cassirer, heir to Lilly Cassirer who was forced to give up Camille Pissarro’s “Rue Saint-Honoré, Après-midi, Effet de Pluie” while fleeing from Nazi Germany. Recognizing national sovereignty, the court ruled that Spanish law rather than California law applied to the case because, though the plaintiffs had a significant connection to California, the painting did not. According to Spanish law, if one possesses property in an obvious way for a certain period of time, ownership transfers to that individual. Therefore, since the doctrine of adverse possession applied in this case, it did not matter that the painting in question was looted by the Nazis.
Dowd warned the audience that it is important to look skeptically at provenance research associated with works of art. As an example, Dowd discussed the case Bakalar v. Vavra, where he established that Franz (Fritz) Grunbaum, who owned a sizable collection of Egon Schiele works, was murdered in Dachau. Sotheby’s claimed in the listed provenance for the drawing by Egon Schiele, “Seated Woman With Bent Left Leg” (1917), that it was passed down to the widow and heirs and then sold voluntarily, when in reality no such transactions took place.
Dowd concluded that museums are not doing enough to research their collections and return stolen works, noting that if there is a theft in a transaction, the transactions that follow are irrelevant. Museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Detroit Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Guggenheim Museum, are still fighting and rejecting charges of looted Nazi art, refusing to return the works.
The CLE lecture, which drew an audience of approximately thirty people, ended with questions on what museums should do in response to claims of looted art and suggestions for what advocates can do to rectify the suppression of Nazi looted art claims.
- Bakalar v. Vavra, 619 F.3d 136, 2010 WL 3435375 (2d Cir. Sept 2, 2010)
- Cassirer v. Kingdom of Spain, 616 F.3d 1019 (9th Cir. August 12, 2010)
- De Csepel v. Republic of Hungary, 714 F.3d 591 (D.C. Cir. 2013)
- Grosz v. Museum of Modern Art, 2010 WL 88003 (Jan. 6, 2010), aff’d (2d Cir. Dec. 16, 2010.)
- Guggenheim v. Lubell, 153 A.D.2d 143, 153, 550 N.Y.S.2d 618, 624 (1st Dep’t 1990), aff’d 77 N.Y.2d 311, 321
- Schoeps v. State of Bavaria, 2014 WL 2915894 (S.D.N.Y. June 27, 2014)
- Menzel v. List, 267 N.Y.2d 804, 819 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 1966), modified 279 N.Y.S.2d 608 (1st Dep’t. 1967), modified and aff’d 24 N.Y.2d 91 (1969)
- Museum of Fine Arts Boston v. Seger-Thomschitz, 623 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. Oct. 14, 2010)
- Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677 (2004)
- Toledo Museum of Art v. Ullin, 477 F. Supp.2d 802 (N.D. OH 2006)
- Vineberg v. Bissonnette, 548 F.3d 50 (1st Cir. 2008)
- Von Saher v. Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena, 131 S.Ct. 379 (Oct. 4, 2010)
- Dowd, Raymond J., Nazi Looted Art and Cocaine: When Museum Directors Take It, Call The Cops, 14 Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 529 (2013)
- Dean, Martin, Robbing The Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933-1945 (Cambridge U. Press 2008)
- Petropoulos, Jonathan, Art As Politics in The Third Reich (U. North Carolina Press 1999)
- Petropoulos, Jonathan, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World In Nazi Germany (Oxford U. Press 2000)
*About the Author: Debra Friedmann is a rising second-year law student at the Georgetown University Law Center. She received a B.A. in History and Studio Art from Brandeis University. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers are not meant to act or rely on the information in this article without attorney consultation.