Art Law Report

My column in Apollo Magazine on museums and deaccessioning in crisis

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 27, 2020 at 11:59 AM

Continuing our ongoing tracking of the effect of the Covid-19 lockdown on museums and arts organizations, I penned a column in Apollo magazine today. You can read the full article here (subscription required for more than three articles), the first paragraph is reprinted here as a teaser:

One key question for museums boards, management, and their supporters to ask right now is this: what do they actually want to accomplish when the Covid-19 crisis subsides and the lockdowns end? Is a museum its collection, its location, its staff or its visitors? Until recently we had the comparative luxury of asking these questions one museum crisis at a time. Should a small museum (for example, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts) survive at all costs without the collection that created its very importance? Should it seek a better home for its collection but perhaps lose some of its unique character or even its individual existence (see the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s merger with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)? Or should it evolve in a way that is perhaps contrary to its founders’ specific desires (the Barnes Foundation’s move to Philadelphia from the truly sui generis yet remote home in Lower Merion created by Dr Barnes)?

Now, with [read more here]

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Topics: National Academy Museum, National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, ICOM, American Alliance of Museums, Philadelphia, AAM, Association of Art Museum Directors, International Council of Museums, Corcoran Gallery of Art, AAMD, Barnes Foundation, Pittsfield, Berkshire Museum, Apollo Magazine, UPMIFA, endowment, Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds

Fate of Museum Collections and Endowments Presents Hard Questions in Hard Times­

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 16, 2020 at 5:25 PM

Since analyzing the likely consequence of gallery and auctioneer insolvencies last month, we have been keeping an eye on how the economic crisis borne of the COVID19 pandemic is affecting the art world. Essentially every museum in the world has had to close its doors in the last month, with the previously unimaginable effect of a 100% drop in attendance revenue. Every museum, from the largest and best-endowed to the smallest and cash-strapped, is grappling with how to sustain its people, its mission, and its future. There are no easy answers, but the Association of Art Museum Directors issued yesterday an interesting update to its longstanding ethical guidelines concerning deaccessioning and restricted assets. As I remarked in a conversation with ArtNews yesterday on the topic, the question of what—and who—an endowment and an art collection is for have never been more relevant, or more difficult to answer. When Brandeis proposed to close the Rose Art Museum in 2009 in the midst of the last financial crisis, the effects were long-lasting. I have negotiated considerable specific requirements to gifts on behalf of museums and donors to account for what, before that event, many had not considered. What will this catastrophe, which is already far worse, bring?

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Topics: Brandeis, Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Alliance of Museums, Rose Art Museum, Association of Art Museum Directors, International Council of Museums, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, AAMD, Berkshire Museum, North Adams, Mass MoCA, COVID19, Board of Regents, Brian Allen, CARES Act, Financial Accounting Standards Board, Clark Art Institute, National Review

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

Rich Man/Poor Man?  The Berkshire Museum and Why Deaccessioning is so Frustrating

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on August 23, 2017 at 6:11 PM

Two wonderful museums recently announced plans to sell major works of art.  In one case, some 40 paintings, American masterpieces among them, will be sold at auction.  In another, more than 400 photographs will also be sold.  The former case has prompted a nationwide outcry, the latter…effectively nothing.  The differences and similarities between the two underscore the aspirational rules that govern what is known as “deaccessioning,” but also remind us that principles and the goals they are meant to reach are not always the same thing. 

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Topics: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Delaware Museum of Art, American Alliance of Museums, Lee Rosenbaum, MoMA, Deaccessioning, AAM, Norman Rockwell, Association of Art Museum Directors, Alexander Calder, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, AAMD, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Pittsfield, General Electric, Waconah Park, Berkshire Museum, Housatonic, Lake Onota, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, Zenas Crane, Williamstown, Lenox, North Adams, Mass MoCA, Felix Salmon

U.S. Museums and Looted Art—Is it Whether you Win or How you Play?

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on July 9, 2015 at 7:26 AM

A recent report by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has made strong criticisms of American museums with respect to their handling of Nazi-looted art claims. In particular, the report criticizes the assertion of timeliness defenses such as statutes of limitations. The report focuses in particular on cases involving the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma. There is no state control over the vast proportion of art in America the way there is in most European countries, and thus, no possibility of singular, nationalized approaches. In response to the report, some of the museums mentioned have defended their strategies, though in some cases the players are talking past each other. What is undeniable is that whether as a function of the nature of U.S. museums (largely private, rather than public), it is hard to say there is a coordinated approach to the issue, good or bad. The report is lengthy and detailed, and well worth a read in depth that space here does not permit. In some ways, the question it poses boils down to this: is determining the historical truth the obligation of everyone involved or is there some room to prevail without addressing the larger issues?

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Topics: Toledo Museum of Art, Street Scene in Tahiti, Léone Meyer’s, American Association of Museums, Two Nudes, La bérgère, AAMD Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during th, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Rue St. Honoré après-midi êffet de pluie, University of Oklahoma, Cassirer, Nazi-looted art, Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, Fred Jones Jr. Museum, Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, World Jewish Restitution Organization, WJRO, Association of Art Museum Directors, Restitution, American Alliance of Museums AAM, World War II, Paul Gaugin, Camille Pissarro, Oskar Kokoschka, Museums, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, AAMD, Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena

Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Clarification Act Returns

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 10, 2015 at 12:47 PM

The U.S. House of Representatives passed yesterday H.R. 889, the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Clarification Act for the third time in four years. Identical bills passed the house in early 2012 and again last year but failed to win passage in the Senate and signature by the President, thus expiring without becoming a law (and remaining just a bill sitting on Capitol Hill). Will it become law? Probably not, and after a little reflection and evolution, that’s probably for the best.

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Topics: U.S. House of Representatives, Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Clarifica, Second Hickenlooper Amendment, Russia, Herrick Feinstein, Nazi-looted art, Konowaloff, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Association of Art Museum Directors, Restitution, World War II, Foreign Sovereign Immunities, act of state doctrine, Senate, Altmann v. Republic of Austria, Capitol Hill, Immunity from Seizure Act, Chabad, Federal Republic of Germany, 28 U.S.C. § 1605, Welfenschatz, Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity, Mari-Claudia Jiménez, Cuba

Deaccessioning in Detroit?

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 14, 2015 at 11:30 AM

Readers will no doubt be puzzled by the news this week that the Detroit Institute of Arts—fresh off of the Grand Bargain, in which an infusion of donations and fundraising led to the transfer of the collection’s ownership back to the museum and off the table in the context of the Detroit Bankruptcyis moving ahead with plans to deaccession works of art in its collection, a Van Gogh in particular. There are a number of things going on in this latest development, which need to be distinguished.

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Topics: Graham Beal, Deaccession, Delaware Museum of Art, American Alliance of Museums, Donn Zaretzky, Deaccessioning, AAM, Van Gogh, Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts, Association of Art Museum Directors, Museums, Detroit Bankruptcy, AAMD, grand bargain

Léone Meyer’s Claims for Pissarro Transferred to Oklahoma

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 7, 2015 at 10:42 AM

A U.S. District Court judge has taken the recent invitation of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and transferred to Oklahoma a lawsuit by Léone Meyer over ownership of a Camille Pissarro painting at the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma. The case will now proceed in Oklahoma, where the museum seems likely to assert both sovereign immunity under Oklahoma law, as well as an argument that transfers in Switzerland conferred legal title to the museum as a successor to those transfers. However counterintuitive it seems, it may yet be that a court could agree with Meyer that the painting was stolen, but agree with Oklahoma that a Swiss litigation in the 1950s about whether it was sold to a good faith buyer means that Oklahoma holds full title and ownership.

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Topics: David Findlay Jr. Inc., due process, third party beneficiary, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Raoul Meyer, Nazi Occupation, American Alliance of Museums, University of Oklahoma, Aaron and Clara Weitzenhofer, Judge Colleen McMahon, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, AAM, Vichy, La bergère rentrent des moutons, Association of Art Museum Directors, Restitution, David Findlay Galleries, World War II, CPLR 301, Switzerland, Leone Meyer, long art statute, Camille Pissarro, Museums, personal jurisdiction, AAMD, Christoph Bernoulli, Swiss judgment, Rep. Mike Reynolds

A Trust For The Benefit of the Public is Not “the Public Trust”—The Deaccessioning Debate and the Detroit Institute of Arts

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 4, 2014 at 6:30 AM

Reflecting on the recent argument by the Detroit Institute of Arts that the city of Detroit cannot legally sell, let alone be forced to sell, the artwork in the museum to satisfy creditor, some overlapping terminology creates the possibility of an important confusion. Particularly in the realm of deaccessioning, this distinctions are quite important. Meanwhile, the state of Michigan today approved its part of the “Grand Bargain” to subsidize the bankruptcy to avoid sale or encumbrance of the artwork.

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Topics: Donn Zaretsky, Roberta Smith, Rose Art Museum, Lee Rosenbaum, Columbia University, Deaccessioning, Detroit Institute of Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Association of Art Museum Directors, Michigan, Albright-Knox Gallery, New York Times, Detroit Bankruptcy, AAMD, Edward Hopper, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, grand bargain, Brandeis University, Barnes Foundation

Remaining Claims Against AAM, AAMD Related to Pissarro “La Bergere” in Oklahoma Are Dismissed

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on May 23, 2014 at 5:34 AM

As we reported last week, the U.S. District Court dismissed claims against the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art, the University of Oklahoma, and associated Oklahoma defendants, over title to the Camille Pissarro painting La bergère rentrent des moutons (a case in which I represented the David Findlay Jr. Gallery).

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Topics: David Findlay Jr. Inc., due process, third party beneficiary, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Raoul Meyer, Nazi Occupation, American Alliance of Museums, University of Oklahoma, Aaron and Clara Weitzenhofer, Judge Colleen McMahon, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, AAM, Vichy, La bergère rentrent des moutons, Association of Art Museum Directors, Restitution, David Findlay Galleries, World War II, CPLR 301, Switzerland, Leone Meyer, long art statute, Camille Pissarro, Museums, personal jurisdiction, AAMD, Christoph Bernoulli, Swiss judgment

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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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