Every work of art that hangs on a museum wall has a story behind it, and that story isn’t always pretty. Museums around the world are grappling with legacies of theft, violence and colonialism in their collections. In New York, a new law aims to confront the painful legacy of the Holocaust: The state’s museums are now required to acknowledge if a work of art was stolen by the Nazi regime.
Governor Kathy Hochul signed the law on August 10 as part of a legislative package aimed at honoring and supporting Holocaust survivors. Beginning immediately, museums will need to “prominently place a placard or other signage” acknowledging Nazi-looted art. Hochul signed two other bills as well: One requires schools to provide high-quality Holocaust education, and another requires the state’s Department of Financial Services to publish a list of banks that waive fees for Holocaust reparation payments.
“As New Yorkers, we are united in our solemn commitment to Holocaust survivors: We will never forget,” says Hochul in a statement. “These are individuals who have endured unspeakable tragedy but nonetheless have persevered to build lives of meaning and purpose right here in New York. We owe it to them, their families, and the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust to honor their memories and ensure future generations understand the horrors of this era.”
The Nazis looted some 600,000 artworks from Jews during World War II. Though the Holocaust’s atrocities occurred many decades ago, their legacy still reverberates in the lives of survivors and their families—many of whom are still not in possession of what was once theirs. The Louvre, for example, holds around 1,700 Nazi-looted works of art.
Advocates for Holocaust survivors have long been calling on art institutions to do better. In 2018, the Louvre opened an exhibition of art stolen by Nazis, claiming that the goal was to find the works’ rightful owners. But restitution scholar Marc Masurovsky told the Washington Post’s James McAuley that these efforts were “far too little, far too late.” The museum, he said, should be more proactive about identifying the rightful owners of the works in its collections—a vital step in restitution that museums around the world struggle with.
“Uncovering the provenance of a piece … can be slow work that sometimes never reaches resolution,” wrote Jackie Mansky for Smithsonian magazine in 2017. “That’s especially the case when art is swept up in war or political instability.”
In 1998, 44 countries signed the Washington Principles, a set of international guidelines for returning Nazi-looted art; since then, countries like Austria and Germany have returned tens of thousands of stolen items, as Stuart E. Eizenstat, who spearheaded the agreement, noted in a Washington Post opinion piece in 2019.
And in recent years, some restitution battles have made headway. French museums returned 15 works of Nazi-looted art to Jewish families earlier this year. Just a few months ago, the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe managed to return a 1683 painting to a 101-year-old Dutch woman named Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck. And in April, the United States Supreme Court unanimously sided with the Cassirer family, which was seeking to obtain a Nazi-looted painting from a Spanish museum.
But along with wins, there have been losses. As Suzanna Sherry reported in April for SCOTUSblog, though the Supreme Court sided with the Cassirer family, they still may not obtain the painting any time soon—or ever. On a longer timeline, as Eizenstat wrote, “Russia and a handful of other European nations that supported the Washington Principles have largely ignored or barely implemented them.”
The New York legislation does not address restitution, which has been an issue in the state. In 2009, after settling for an undisclosed amount, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) and the Guggenheim kept two Picasso paintings that historian J. H. Schoeps had claimed were rightfully his, Christine Kearney reported for Reuters. A different Picasso was at the center of a legal battle between the family of Paul and Alice Leffmann and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; in 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a previous decision siding with the Met.
New York’s new law also doesn’t acknowledge art that was stolen outside of Europe, Elizabeth Shwe points out in Gothamist. The governor’s office did not respond to Gothamist’s inquiries about art stolen from non-European countries.
So far, per Gothamist, the Met, the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMa, the Guggenheim and the Brooklyn Museum have not released information on how they plan to comply with the new law’s requirements.