U.S. Museums Trying to Keep Jewish Artwork Stolen By Nazis

Museums, governments can keep stolen works by waiting out legal clock

A visitor takes a photograph of a painting called 'Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep' that the Nazis stole / AP
A visitor takes a photograph of a painting called 'Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep' that the Nazis stole / AP
June 8, 2016

Museums across the world, including in the United States, have been trying to run out the clock on legal statutes that would compel them to return high-priced works of art to Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had these precious items stolen by the Nazis during World War II, according to testimony before Congress.

Ambassador Ronald Lauder, council chair of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, disclosed to Congress on Tuesday that "governments, museums, and many knowing [art] collectors" have been amassing artworks originally owned by Jewish individuals who fell victim to Hitler’s Nazi death machine during the war.

In a bid to retain this artwork, which in some cases was obtained on the black market, U.S. museums have attempted to tie up the court system to run out the clock on legal statutes that would force them to return the art to its original Jewish owners, according to Lauder.

"There are museums here in the United States that have been waiting out the clock to pass the statute of limitations" on existing laws, Lauder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering legislation to reset the clock on these legal statutes in order to give Holocaust victims another chance to reclaim their property.

"This also forces claimants to spend enormous amounts of money on legal fees—another strategy to make them give up," Lauder said. "This is not justice. Stalling claims is an abuse of the system. Sadly, there are museums that feel no need to uphold the Washington Principles. Many other institutions do the very least that is required and not much more."

The new legislation, titled the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, or HEAR Act, would help facilitate the return of these looted artworks by permitting Holocaust survivors to have their cases heard before courts in an expedited manner.

Lauder told Congress that foreign governments, private collectors, and respected museums have all worked since World War II to rob these Holocaust survivors of their rightful possessions.

"What makes this particular crime even more despicable is that this art theft, probably the greatest in history, was continued by governments, museums, and many knowing collectors in the decades following the war," he said. "This was the dirty secret of the post-war art world, and people who should have known better, were part of it. In many cases, legal barriers like arbitrary statutes of limitations were imposed on families that had not been aware that their father’s painting was hanging in a private home or state museum."

Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), a chief advocate of the new legislation to recover these artworks, said in prepared remarks that hundreds of thousands of items were looted by the Nazis and subsequently sold on both legitimate and black markets.

"Over 70 years later—we are still trying to cope with the consequences of the Holocaust," Cruz said. "One consequence that we are here today to address is the Nazis’ looting of hundreds of thousands of works of art and other cultural property in what has been described as the ‘greatest displacement of art in human history.’"

"Much of the stolen property was never reunited with their rightful owners," Cruz added. "And over the years, often through sheer happenstance, many works found their way into American museums and galleries."

The HEAR Act would empower Holocaust survivors and their families to have their claims adjudicated in a timely fashion, Cruz said.

"This bill will help ensure that claims for the restitution of Nazi-looted art are adjudicated based on the facts and merits, and are not short-circuited by technical or non-merits defenses that often work to the disadvantage of Holocaust victims and their families," he said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), another member of the Judiciary Committee, lauded the bill as a step towards setting Nazi injustices right.

"Not only were many of the original records destroyed during the Nazi era, but much of the stolen artwork was then resold multiple times—often without any documentation, and often on the black market," he said. "And as we’ve seen in some instances, the statute of limitations expired while World War II was still being fought."

The HEAR Act would reset the legal clock in many instances and give claimants an opportunity to recover these cultural artifacts.