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Term of Art: Restitution

“Despite international efforts to recover displaced art during World War II, museums in the U.S. still fight assertions of ownerships from Holocaust victims and their heirs. The argument that museums make is that claimants waited too long to bring their claims. However, many restitution claims could not have been brought earlier because the property’s whereabouts were unknown and documentation was kept classified on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Today, restitution efforts are on the rise as national archives declassify wartime documents, and stolen art resurfaces on the market. . . .”

MA Case Study: Kokoschka’s “Lovers”
“In March 2009, in its decision in Museum of Fine Arts v. Seger-Thomschitz, a Massachusetts district court ruled that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was entitled to retain ownership of a painting acquired in the early 1970s. The court held that “the applicable statute of limitations barred any claim.” On October 14, 2010, the circuit court affirmed but stressed that it was not ruling on the legality of the museum’s holding. It noted that “statues of limitations do not vindicate the conduct of parties who successfully invoke them,” and that “for works of art with unmistakable roots in the Holocaust era, museums would now be well-advised to follow the guidelines of the American Association of Museums,” and take all reasonable steps to resolve the Nazi-era provenance status of objects before acquiring them. . .”

New Research Tool for Finding Tangible Evidence and Location of Displaced Art

“Days after the Seger-Thomschitz decision from the First Circuit, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany launched a new e-database of Nazi records and photographs, Cultural Plunder by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg:
Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume. It contains information about thousands of art objects taken from 200 private Jewish collections in France and Belgium between 1940 and 1944. It is searchable by item, artist, owner. and post-war fate of the item.

Noted historian Sophie Lillie explains, “Museums have no intrinsic, superior right to art over private individuals, and no inherent redemptive quality that justifies the display of looted art.” However, if museums continue to win in court, their property rights will be unaffected by challenges of Holocaust-era provenance.”

Conference: Human Rights and Cultural Heritage: From the Holocaust to the Haitian Earthquake (March 31, 2011)

“In March 2011, in affiliation with the American Society for International Law, Cardozo will host a symposium entitled “Human Rights and Cultural Heritage: From the Holocaust to the Haitian Earthquake,” on the topic of restitution. Presenters will no doubt comment on the effectiveness of the new database, the state of pending claims, and the competing interests in stopping or promoting restitution.”

Source: The Cardozo Jurist.