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U.S. Museums’ Use of Declaratory Judgments to Preempt Nazi-Looted Art Claims

Brown Bag Lunch with Jennifer Anglim Kreder – November 18, 2009

Jennifer Anglim Kreder, an Associate Professor of Law at NKU Chase College of Law, focuses in restitution claims for Nazi-stolen artwork. Her current research involves prior adjudication claims by museums to effectively bar potential claims for restitution for illegally acquired artwork during WWII and the Holocaust.

The issue of these claims lies in disputes over questionable title, statute of limitations and prior adjudication. After the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933 and subsequent persecution of Jews (codified by the 1935 Nuremberg Laws), artwork owned by Jews was left behind, stolen outright, or sold at often unfair market prices due to boycotts, inducement or other forms of persecution. The legal weight of the current claims to the artwork would involve arguments of invalid title because the property was transferred illegality via theft or duress.

Prof. Kreder has traced such disputes arising in the U.S since 2004, the majority of which have been dismissed on the grounds of a run on the statute of limitation and/or prior adjudication claims made by the current “possessors” of the property (for the most part museums). A Michigan court, for example, dismissed a restitution claim on the grounds that the statute of limitations ran in 1941 (which can be viewed as the height of Nazi conquest in Europe), three years after the property was allegedly stolen. Prof Kreder fears that because of rulings like this and museums’ bringing prior adjudication claims against claimants (often Holocaust survivors), opportunities for proper investigation into the historical record of the title to the artwork will be lost since potential claimants will be put in the position of defending against these pleadings without necessary time or resources.

One goal Prof. Kreder hopes to accomplish with her research is to take these claims out of the hands of the courts, which she argues lack the necessary historical education to fairly adjudicate these claims. Instead, she hopes to that measures involving more historical research (including, but not limited, to the 1998 Washington Principles) will set up more fair and efficient fora for the proper resolution of these disputes.

Dr. Lucille Roussin, who founded and heads Cardozo’s Holocaust Claims Restitution Practicum, was on hand at the discussion to provide insight into this complicated area of law.