Art Law Report

“Moralistic Preening” and Broken Commitments Under the Washington Principles—Ninth Circuit Chastises Spain for Keeping Nazi-looted Pissarro but Rules Painting Will not Return to Cassirer Family

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on August 18, 2020 at 1:12 PM

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit yesterday affirmed the 2019 judgment that allowed the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Museum in Madrid to retain Camille Pissarro’s Rue St. Honoré, après-midi, effet de pluie (Rue St. Honoré, Afternoon, Rain Effect) (1892), a painting sold under duress by Lilly Cassirer to a Nazi in 1939. Absent rehearing by the full Ninth Circuit or Supreme Court review, the decision may bring to an end the Cassirers decades-old effort to win restitution of a painting that no one disputes is Nazi-looted art, yet the museum refuses to return. The result turns on the highly deferential standard of review for findings of fact by the trial court about the state of knowledge by Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza when he acquired the painting in 1976. Yet the Ninth Circuit’s lack of enthusiasm for this result fairly leaps off the page, however, first with its decision to issue an unsigned opinion not for publication, and by seconding the District Court’s disappointment in the ruling under review “that Spain and TBC’s refusal to return the Painting to the Cassirers is inconsistent with Spain’s moral commitments under the Washington Principles [on Nazi-Confiscated Art] and Terezin Declaration.” The Court of Appeals’ statement about Spain and the museum that “It is perhaps unfortunate that a country and a government can preen as moralistic in its declarations, yet not be bound by those declarations” is a reminder of the limitations of these moral imperatives that, ironically, many current possessors argue are sufficient to address the problem of Nazi-looted art. It is absolutely true that moral principles often do not have the force of law. It is equally true, however, that flouting moral principles warrants moral sanction. And as multiple judges of the United States have found, Spain deserves just that.

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Topics: Terezin Declaration, Guelph Treasure, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Rue St. Honoré après-midi êffet de pluie, Claude Cassirer, Cassirer, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, FSIA, expropriation exception”, Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen- Bornemisza, Welfenschatz, A Tragic Fate, Reichskammer der bildenden Künste, Jakob Scheidwimmer, Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts, Madrid

Ten Years Later—Lessons Learned from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston Kokoschka Case

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on March 26, 2020 at 3:03 PM

There has been some renewed interest in the case a decade or so ago involving a claim by the heir of Oskar Reichel’s family to a painting in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston: Two Nudes (Lovers) by Oskar Kokoschka. In response I’ve decided to post an excerpt from my book A Tragic Fate­—Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art (ABA, 2017).

It has been suggested that the MFA somehow concealed its rationale or the documentary evidence on the basis of which it concluded that the painting should not be restituted.  That is simply not so, however. The MFA’s now-curator of provenance, Dr. Victoria S. Reed, authored and the MFA filed an exhaustive report of the museum’s research into the case, accompanied by primary source documents. Whether one agrees or disagrees with its conclusions, the report has been publicly available for more than eleven years. It’s no secret that I have been complimentary of the MFA’s provenance research and transparency in the case—and I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being unsympathetic to claimants generally.

The key reasons for the MFA’s conclusions that the painting had not been sold under duress included the fact that Oskar Reichel’s sons pursued restitution claims vigorously (and successfully) for both real and personal property, including paintings. They never identified this painting in their claims to looted property, however. In addition, the MFA found­—and filed publicly—correspondence from Oskar’s last surviving son Raimund from 1982 that explained that the MFA painting was among those that Oskar had given to Otto Kallir to sell in the USA:

 

Exhibit 65 to Dr. Reed’s Report

The MFA drew the conclusion, to which there was no specific evidence to the contrary, that this was in contrast to the property that had been taken from Oskar. This is in the context of the general presumption of invalidity for transactions between 1933 and 1945 involving persecuted groups.

I have been very critical of museums that I believe have not adhered to the spirit of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ guidance on Nazi-looted art claims where I think it is appropriate. But in my opinion—and that’s all it is, my opinion—the MFA is an example of a museum worthy of praise for following those principles of research and transparency (and not only with regard to Nazi-spoliation, but its collection generally).

Please do note that some of the analysis of the applicable statute of limitations has been superseded by the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR Act), but the case went to a final judgment before that law was passed and was thus not affected by it.

I urge you to consider the case with an open mind and reach your own conclusions. I have done my best to explain my thinking, which you may judge for yourself. The press coverage at the time was very critical (some of which resonated for me until I reviewed the case in detail), which in hindsight is probably attributable in part to the fact that I don’t recall any contemporary coverage that addressed specifically the actual research that the MFA did and made public. 

The following is re-published with the permission of the author, and may not be copied, reproduced, or republished in any fashion without express written permission of the author, whom you may contact using the links on this page. A Tragic Fate­—Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art © Nicholas M. O'Donnell (2017) is available in hardcover and Kindle editions on Amazon.com. I hope you find it informative and thought provoking.

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Topics: Galerie St. Etienne, Nazi-looted art, Association of Art Museum Directors, Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, Oskar Kokoschka, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, HEAR Act, A Tragic Fate, Two Nudes (Lovers), Oskar Reichel, Otto Kallir, Victoria S. Reed, Otto Nierenstein

Heirs of Holocaust Victim Fritz Grünbaum Win Restitution of Nazi-Looted Schiele Drawings

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on July 11, 2019 at 5:05 PM

The Appellate Division First Department in New York has affirmed the trial court’s ruling in Reif v. Nagy that the heirs of Viennese actor and Holocaust victim Franz Friedrich (Fritz) Grünbaum are entitled to the return of two Egon Schiele drawings, Woman Hiding her Face (1912) and Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911).  The ruling is a momentous victory for the Grünbaum heirs, and features several recurring characters in many Nazi-looted restitution disputes.  We were doubly gratified to see the First Department’s citation to our own case, Philipp v. F.R.G., 894 F.3d 406 (D.C. Cir. 2018) for the proposition that sales under duress are void and violate international law consistent with the policies of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act of 2016.  It is a landmark ruling and a testament to the perseverance of the Grünbaum heirs and their legal team.

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, Cornelius Gurlitt, Galerie St. Etienne, Nazi-looted art, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Galerie Gutekunst, Holocaust, Fritz Grünbaum, NS Raubkunst, Egon Schiele, Mathilde Lukacs, Franz Kieslinger, Anschluss, Welfenschatz, HEAR Act, Ankerwycke, A Tragic Fate, Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art, Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, Woman in a Black Pinafore, Woman Hiding her Face, Seated Woman With Bent Left Leg (Torso), Reif v. Nagy, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Eberhard Kornfeld, Philipp v. F.R.G., New York Law Journal, Gutekunst & Klipstein, Jonathan Petropoulos

Radio Interview Examines Recent Nazi-Looted Art Court Decisions

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on May 28, 2019 at 11:38 AM

I was pleased for the opportunity to chat with Larry Perel of KCRW in Santa Barbara about the significance of the recent ruling that the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid is the owner of Rue St. Honoré, effet de pluie by Camille Pissarro—notwithstanding that there was no dispute that it had been looted from the Cassirer by the Nazis.  You can listen to the full audio of the radio broadcast here.  I discussed the Cassirer case, the more recent decision by the United States Supreme Court not to hear further appeal of Marei von Saher’s lawsuit against the Norton Simon Museum, and other current issues concerning the restitution of Nazi-confiscated art claims. You can read more background on these cases here at the Art Law Report, or in A Tragic Fate—Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art.

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Topics: Nazi-looted art, Marei Von Saher, Camille Pissarro, Art Law Report, A Tragic Fate, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Rue St. Honoré effet de pluie, Nazi-confiscated art, Larry Perel, KCRW, Santa Barbara, Madrid

Thyssen-Bornemisza Prevails Over Cassirer Heirs' Claim to Pissarro Taken by Nazis Despite Acts “Inconsistent with the Washington Principles”

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on May 2, 2019 at 9:20 AM

One of the longest-running court cases in the United States about art looted by the Nazis has been decided in favor of the current possessor, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, an instrumentality of the Kingdom of Spain.  The U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ruled on April 30, 2019 against the heirs of Lilly Cassirer, a German Jew whom the Nazis targeted in 1939 for a forced sale of Rue Saint–Honoré, après-midi, effect de pluie (1892).  The ruling is the second time that the museum has prevailed in the District Court as the owner of the painting under Spanish law, now on the grounds the museum did not know of the painting’s looting history when it acquired the work and that it held the work publicly for long enough to become its owner even though it had been stolen.  The ruling, while favorable to the museum in this case, confirms important principles about the inability of successive possessors to acquire good title to artworks stolen by the Nazis, and the importance of diligence and pursuing questions raised by red flags in the chain of title.  Notable as well was the Court’s pointed criticism of Spain for failing to adhere to the spirit of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, and Spain’s failure to “comply with its moral commitments.”

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Topics: Walter Feilchenfeldt, Third Reich, Terezin Declaration, Gestapo, Lilly Cassirer, Claude Cassirer, Jacques Goudstikker, Nazi-looted art, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Washington Principles, Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen- Bornemisza, A Tragic Fate, Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art, Reichskammer der bildenden Künste, flight taxes, Rue Saint–Honoré, Julius Cassirer, Paul Durand-Ruel, Ludwigstrasse, Dr. Cassirer and Co. Kabelwerke, Jakob Scheidwimmer, Sydney Schoenberg, Hahn Gallery, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Military Government Law No. 59, Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts, Ari Walter Kampf, Eugen Kampf, Knoedler & Co. Gallery, encubridor

RESCHEDULED Event: "Looted Art for Sale" at Brandeis University November 6, 2018

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on October 16, 2018 at 2:51 PM

I am honored to be one of the presenters at an upcoming symposium at Brandeis University entitled "Looted Art for Sale" that was postponed last winter. This interdisciplinary conference will provide an international perspective on the last twenty years of art recovery. Speakers include former Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, a primary leader in the creation of U. S. restitution policies, Kim Oosterlink, Victoria Reed, and Inge Reist.

"Looted Art for Sale" will be sponsored by the Brandeis Center for German and European Studies, the Rosenberg Institute of Global Finance at Brandeis International Business School, the Mandel Center for the Humanities and the Department of Fine Arts.

My presentation will be entitled “Who Makes the Rules? The High-Stakes Legal Conflicts Over Looted Art.” I can scarcely claim to belong among such excellent company, so if for their perspectives if not for mine, I encourage anyone interested to attend.  Registration is available here.  

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Topics: Monuments Men, Nazi-looted art, A Tragic Fate, Inge Reist, Stuart Eizenstat, US-Iran Relations, Kim Oosterlink, Carol Clark, Nancy Scott

Deletion of Grünbaum Works from Lost Art Database Shows Again How German Government Has Lost Its Way on Nazi-Looted Art

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on August 27, 2018 at 1:03 PM

The New York Times reported yesterday that the German Lost Art Foundation had removed several paintings once owned by the Viennese cabaret actor Fritz Grünbaum from the Lost Art database.  While the history of these objects is hotly contested, it was a particularly strange choice given that Grünbaum’s heirs just won a judgment earlier this year that the works by Schiele must be returned to them—by reason of Nazi duress.  For a database that has never been suggested as an adjudication of rights but rather as a repository of notice to the world of possible title issues, it was a perplexing choice.  Against the backdrop of the party that the German government and the foundation are throwing themselves in November for which few outsiders have been able to register, the explanation appears much less benign particularly against the backdrop of the government’s historical revisionism in U.S. federal court litigation.

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, laches, Cornelius Gurlitt, Germany, Nazi-looted art, res judicata, Die Koordinierungsstelle für Kulturgutverluste, Holocaust, Magdeburg, Fritz Grünbaum, NS Raubkunst, Bavaria, Egon Schiele, Mathilde Lukacs, Task Force, New York Times, National Gallery, A Tragic Fate, German Lost Art Foundation, Kieslinger, Woman in a Black Pinafore, Woman Hiding her Face, Charles E. Ramos, Seated Woman With Bent Left Leg (Torso)

Norton Simon Museum Wins Appeal Over Nazi-Looted Cranach Paintings

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on July 31, 2018 at 12:47 PM

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld the judgment against Marei von Saher on her claims against the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena to recover Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  The Cranachs belonged to Von Saher’s father-in-law Jacques Goudstikker, a renowned Dutch Jewish art dealer who fled the Netherlands.  Yesterday’s decision was the latest in a complicated case, holding that the claim could not proceed because it would conflict with a judgment made by the Dutch government—in a case about paintings that no one disputes were looted by the Nazis but which the Norton Simon refuses to return.  Notably, the Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal entered two years ago by the District Court, but for different reasons.  Where the trial court had held in 2016 that Von Saher was not entitled to the paintings by applying substantive Dutch post-war law, the Ninth Circuit yesterday held that it could not entertain the question because it involved a so-called “Act of State,” a doctrine under which courts will decline to review certain kinds of cases that implicate sovereign acts.  It was not a complete surprise—the appeals court had hinted at the possibility of applying the doctrine back in 2014 when it remanded the case on one of its multiple trips to the appellate court—but was a curious application of it to a sale by the Dutch government, an act that is quintessentially commercial, not sovereign.  It remains to be seen what Von Saher will do next.  Von Saher is a complicated dispute that deserved its day in court, not the back of the hand out of “respect” for an “official” act that never actually happened, or an official act that this most recent decision actually contradicts. 

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, Alois Miedl, Act of State, Jacques Goudstikker, Nazi-looted art, Hermann Goering, Restitution, Marei Von Saher, Ninth Circuit, HEAR Act, A Tragic Fate, George Stroganoff, Commisssie Rechtsverkeer in oorlogstijd, Royal Decree 133, Royal Decree A6, CORVO, Royal Decree 100

What About Margarethe Mauthner? Van Gogh Once Owned by Elizabeth Taylor Heads to Auction Again with Scant Mention of its Persecuted Former Owner

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on March 26, 2018 at 9:19 AM

Since the passage in 2016 of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act, many commenters (here included) have grappled with what the implications of the law will be on the scope and frequency of future claims.  Even as litigants are faced with policy arguments about whether individual claims belong in U.S. courts—arguments that the HEAR Act should have put to rest—it is occasionally worthwhile to consider how prior cases would have been affected.  Such analysis can draw into relief why the law was such a significant step forward.  This week, news that a painting by Vincent Van Gogh once owned by Elizabeth Taylor will go to auction again provides one such example.  A beautiful painting in the collection of the biggest movie star in the world makes for a great sales pitch, but missing in the coverage is any mention of Margarethe Mauthner, a German Jew who owned the painting before fleeing the Nazi regime.  The exact circumstances under which she lost possession of the painting are unclear, but those circumstances might have had the chance to be determined had the HEAR Act been passed earlier.  The importance of that opportunity is worth considering as the law is assessed going forward. 

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Topics: Margarethe Mauthner, Nazi-looted art, Van Gogh, Christie's, Holocaust Victims Redress Act, Sotheby's, Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, HEAR Act, A Tragic Fate, Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, Alfred Wolf, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Cassirer

"A Tragic Fate" Lecture at DePaul Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law February 26, 2018

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on February 8, 2018 at 10:32 AM

I am very pleased to be in Chicago on February 26, 2018 at the Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law to discuss my bookA Tragic Fate—Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art.  DePaul's cultural heritage law program is at the pinnacle of art, museum, and cultural property study, and it is a great honor to be invited.  

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Topics: DePaul University of Law, A Tragic Fate, Wayland Public Library

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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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