The return this week of a 17th-century oil painting to the daughter of a German art historian from whom the Nazis stole it is fueling efforts to revitalize campaigns against museums and countries that steadfastly refuse to return Nazi-looted art.
Federal legislation will be sought to strip museums of their right to dismiss claims for the Nazi-looted art they hold by arguing that the statute of limitations for the restitution of such art has expired, according to two lawyers who specialize in Holocaust restitution.
During a ceremony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan celebrating the return of the painting, “Portrait of a Man,” state officials also announced the creation of an online art gallery to help in the recovery of other Nazi looted art.
Benjamin Lawsky, New York State’s superintendent of its Department of Financial Services, told The Jewish Week that the state’s Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) has been working to return looted art to its rightful owners since 1998 and that the online art gallery (www.dfs.ny.gov/consumer/holocaust/gallery_map.htm) is designed to further those efforts.
“It will be related to the art we have recovered and not yet recovered, and we hope it will be an educational resource,” he said.
Anna Rubin, director of the HCPO since it was founded in 1997, said that to date her office has helped in the restitution of 101 pieces of art — including “Portrait of a Man” from the Louvre in Paris — that were lost, stolen or sold under duress during the time of Nazi rule from 1933 to 1945.
Charles Goldstein, president of the World Jewish Congress’ Commission on Art Recovery, applauded New York for being the only state in the country with a Holocaust restitution office that helps survivors and their heirs for free. Nevertheless, he noted, it is like a toothless tiger.
“They write letters and occasionally someone sees the letter with its state seal and complies,” he said. “But it has no enforcement power.”
Lawsky acknowledged that but said: “We have a moral authority. By doing detailed, careful work in being able to prove the provenance of a work of art, we are able to go in and negotiate [for its return to its rightful owner].
“If someone says, ‘I admit you are right but I am not giving you the painting,’ … the claimants could go to court and we would support their claim with our work.”
Angelika Mayer, whose father, August Liebmann Mayer, a prominent Munich art historian and curator from whom the Nazis stole “Portrait of a Man,” had initially sought the help of lawyers Mel Urbach in Manhattan and Markus Stoetzel in Germany to locate and return the work of art.
Stoetzel said he located it — a 2-foot-by-1-foot oil-on-wood painting by an unknown Italian master — hanging in the Louvre. He said he located it soon after being hired in 2008. He said he asked the HCPO for help in 2011 after his efforts fell on deaf ears.
In prepared remarks, Lawsky credited the French government and the Commission of Victims of Spoliation Resulting from the Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force during the Occupation (CIVS) in making the restitution possible. He said the two attorneys and the HCPO together submitted a claim to CIVS to recover the painting.
CIVS is responsible for resolving claims for artwork in the Musées Nationaux Récupération collection and “Portrait of a Man” was item number 801 and was held at the Louvre. HCPO said CIVS quickly recognized the rightful claim of Mayer’s only child based on the provenance of the painting.
“While the terrible damage caused by Nazi persecution can never be repaired, we hope that the recovery of this painting will deliver at least some small measure of justice,” Lawsky said.
The two lawyers described their work with the HCPO as a “strategic relationship” for which they were grateful. They said they have many other clients for whom they are also seeking restitution and that they will be asking Washington for help.
“Many of our clients are elderly or second and third generation and their cases have to be resolved as quickly as possible — there is no excuse for further delay,” said Stoetzel.
Urbach said they would be asking U.S. lawmakers to get the other 43 countries that signed onto the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art to reaffirm their commitment to art restitution. The agreement said efforts should be made to publicize Nazi-looted art to locate their prewar owners and heirs. It said that where the prewar owners and heirs of Nazi-looted art have been identified, steps should be taken “expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution.”
“We think this issue has fallen off the edge of a cliff and that amnesia is setting in, particularly in Germany,” Urbach said. “They seem to have forgotten or ignored the historical record, and this amnesia lets them hold onto this material. Imagine that we have to tell clients they have to go to court to prove that [Hermann] Goering orchestrated the confiscation of their family heirlooms.”
Stoetzel said it was, in fact, Goering, who ordered the seizure of Mayer’s art collection.
“We need an international coalition to exert pressure on all the parties to reanimate the spirit of the Washington Principles,” Stoetzel said. “That is especially true for Germany because the current setup there for restitution of looted art is a total failure — and Germany should be in the forefront of these efforts.”
Goldstein said the WJC is “focused on eliminating barriers to claims, such as the statute of limitations.”
Among the museums making that assertion is the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., which is fighting a claim by Marei von Saher, heir of Jewish Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, for a collection of 16th-century oil paintings by Lucas Cranach that was forcibly sold to the Nazis in 1940.
Goldstein cited also the case of Leone Meyer, daughter of Raoul Meyer, a Jewish businessman in Paris during the Nazi occupation, who is suing the University of Oklahoma in the hope of recovering “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” an 1886 work by French Impressionist Camille Pissarro that was stolen by the Nazis from her father’s private collection. It now hangs in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, which the university owns.
Although the school does not dispute the fact that the painting was looted by the Nazis, it is fighting the suit citing a 1950s court ruling in Switzerland that denied the Meyer family’s claim on grounds that there was a five-year window for such lawsuits.
Ronald Lauder, president of the WJC, has said such arguments are “not only immoral, they fly in the face of postwar agreements. The Nazi thefts from 1933-45 are the greatest displacement of artwork in human history.”
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last year, Lauder said also that the 1998 Washington Conference was designed to “resolve the many and complicated issues surrounding the repatriation of Nazi-looted art.” He said the 11 principles the 44 nations adopted “agreed to look for Nazi-looted art in their public art collections and to resolve restitution claims in a just and fair manner.”
He pointed out also that in June 2009, the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague reaffirmed the Washington Principles. Signed by the U.S. and 45 other nations, it sought to ensure that all Holocaust claims were resolved on their merits and not thwarted by technical legal defenses.
Goldstein said that the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Toledo Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Art are similarly citing the statute of limitations in their refusal to return Nazi-looted art. (Lauder is honorary chairman at the Museum of Modern Art.)
“When they are hiding behind the statute, they deter claims for anything in their museum,” Goldstein said.
“In Europe most of the museums are owned by the government. They aren’t able to raise the statute of limitations against a person who makes a claim for Holocaust restituted art in the Netherlands, France, Germany or Austria.”
But he noted that sometimes “countries simply oppose such claims, even though they signed the Washington Principles.” Among those countries are Hungary, Poland and Russia.
He said the “number one issue” before the WJC now is to “eliminate the barrier of the statute of limitations.”
Urbach said he and Stoetzel believe lawmakers should hold “hearings on Capitol Hill leading to legislation that would bar the use of the statute of limitation defense and set up an arbitration process whereby claims could be submitted and resolved in an economical and speedy fashion.”
Stoetzel added that such steps would “send a powerful message” to European nations still refusing to resolve restitution claims “that it is time they followed suit.”