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Reclaiming Nazi-Looted Art Is About to Get Easier

HEAR Act removes legal loopholes that prevented victims of Nazi art plunder to restore what’s rightfully theirs

This Egon Schiele painting, Portrait of Wally, was looted during World War II and became the subject of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in the 2000s after it was exhibited in New York. (Wikimedia Commons)
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More than 20 percent of the art in Europe is thought to have been looted by the Nazis during World War II—art that has since made its way into the collections of museums, governments and private individuals. But a tangle of international laws often makes it difficult for victims of Nazi art plunder to restore what’s rightfully theirs. Now, reports Emmarie Huetteman for The New York Times, that mammoth task will become a little easier for those whose possessions were stolen thanks to new action by congress.

The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, which was passed unanimously by Congress and is expected to be signed into law by President Obama, will standardize the statutes of limitations for reclaiming looted art in the United States. In the past, explains Huetteman, it’s been difficult for people who have recently located their stolen art to get their property back due to laws designed to protect defendants from decades-old claims. Art owners who have recently figured out where their art is often run up against statutes of limitations that explicitly forbid them from claiming it as theirs. Given that most of the looted art was taken from Holocaust victims, that inability to reclaim prized family possessions adds insult to injury—and has long been thorny legal territory for those who want their possessions back.

The new law aims to rectify that. It allows people who lost art between 1933 and 1945 due to Nazi persecution to bring lawsuits and other legal actions within six years of the time they locate where the art now resides and who currently has it. Previously, the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, a 1998 treaty with 44 signatory countries, urged nations to restore art to its rightful owners, but the agreement was vague and non-binding.

Though the law will undoubtedly make it easier for people to reclaim art within the United States, it will remain a complicated problem elsewhere in the world. As Cnaan Liphshiz reports for Forward, the Polish government recently gave those with claims to art in Warsaw just six months to come forward or risk losing their property to the city—a law that’s being decried as harmful to people’s efforts to pursue their property rights. In response, the World Jewish Restitution Organization has launched a database to help people figure out if they have a legitimate Warsaw property claim and connect them to resources to help them get their property back.

There are a number of other databases to help people get back their art, too. Back in 1997, Philip Saunders, editor of Trace, the stolen art register, estimated that up to 100,000 pieces of art remain missing or in the wrong hands. More than 83 years since Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime’s cultural crimes still impact those who may never get their property back—and those unable to come back to claim what they owned.

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