Art Law Report

New Book by Nicholas M. O'Donnell: "A Tragic Fate--Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi Looted Art"

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 19, 2017 at 11:46 AM

New book explores the historical, ethical, and legal consequences of stolen art

I am pleased to announce that my book A Tragic Fate—Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art (Ankerwycke/ABA Publishing ) is available for purchase and delivery.  I am proud to have composed the first comprehensive overview of looted art disputes in the United States, grounded in the historical and ethical perspectives that have shaped the debate over time.  This has been a fascinating project that am very excited to share.  As I hope readers of the blog will agree, my effort is always to provide a resource that those of general interest will find engaging but not hypertechincal, and which practioners will find useful as a resource. 



Disputes over fine art looted by the Nazis have received renewed attention the past twenty-five years in particular.  A Tragic Fate puts in context the continuum from the Nazis’ first legislation against Jews to the legal principles that have determined the outcome of these ongoing court disputes. 

The Nazi looting of art and cultural property from Jews in Europe was unprecedented, ranging from a massive and organized plunder by the government for the benefit of German museums, to individual thefts by opportunists and Nazis. When the war ended, the Allies enacted a series of far-reaching laws and regulations to undo seizures of property from Jews. Yet, that effort did not extend to finding the individuals from whom the art had been taken, or their heirs. For decades, there was little attention and even less action around seeking to account for looted art.

This changed in the 1990s as the Cold War drew to a close, when new scholarship and attention culminated in the international Washington Conference on Nazi-Era Assets in 1998 and the announcement of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. These principles, and the ethical guidelines from museum associations, changed the perspective of the conversation on the need to find “fair and just solutions” for the victims of Nazi looting and their heirs.

Yet, inevitably claimants turned to the courts of the United States. A Tragic Fate explores what has happened once the parties turn to the legal system. I analyze the strategic, tactical, and ethical choices that the claimants, collectors, museums, and foreign countries involved have made over the course of these debates. A Tragic Fate combines the human stories behind the court cases with legal analysis of the outcomes. A Tragic Fate is the first compilation of the whole story, in addition to providing a review of European efforts to create alternatives to litigation that have in many instances ironically driven the parties into litigation.

I am humbled that experts provided these comments for the book jacket:

“A Tragic Fate is a comprehensive, detailed, up-to-date overview of the challenges that the heirs of Jewish collectors—whose art was stolen by the Nazis—face in U.S. courts and the successes and failures of the past. Mining his own practical experience in the complex field of Nazi-looted art, O’Donnell reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject.  His book is an essential reference for anyone considering U.S. legal action to recover Nazi-looted art—and as O’Donnell makes clear, such cases are likely to emerge for years to come.”—Catherine Hickley, arts and culture journalist, historian, and author of The Munich Art Hoard—Hitler’s Dealer and His Secret Legacy

“Lawyer Nicholas O’Donnell delves deep into every case of Nazi-looted that has come before U.S. courtrooms, looking at the ethical and issues involved. He clearly explains the various strategies and tactics used by claimants, museums, and current owners in sometimes tense legal battles and analyzes their outcomes. Looking beyond the United States, he charts the responses to restitution questions in European countries, which vary from token to downright hostile. The  book is recommended for anyone seeking an overview of this most tragic subject from the U.S. legal perspective and the efforts to return art to its rightful owners—which continue to this day.” —Georgina Adam, art market editor-at-large, The Art Newspaper; art market contributor, The Financial Times; author, Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century

For more information or to schedule a speaking event, contact:

Nicholas M. O’Donnell
Sullivan & Worcester LLP
One Post Office Square
Boston, MA 02109
(617) 338-2814

Topics: Catherine Hickley, Nazi-looted art, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, Books, Georgina Adam, Nicholas M. O'Donnell, Art Law Report, ABA Publishing, Ankerwycke, A Tragic Fate, Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art

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About the Blog

The Art Law Report provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities. It is authored by Nicholas M. O'Donnell, partner in our Art & Museum Law Practice.

The material on this site is for general information only and is not legal advice. No liability is accepted for any loss or damage which may result from reliance on it. Always consult a qualified lawyer about a specific legal problem.

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