Art Law Report

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

No Excuses left—SPK Restitutes Han Baldung Grien to Persecuted Artist's Heirs for Reasons that Germany Denies to Jewish Victims

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on January 17, 2020 at 12:44 PM

The Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, or SPK) in Berlin announced that it had agreed to restitute a 1537 painting of the biblical figure Lot by Hans Baldung Grien to the heirs of Hans Purrmann, a German painter persecuted as a “degenerate” artist in the infamous Nazi action of the same name. Purrmann sold the Grien painting in 1937.

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Topics: Berlin, Expressionist, Guelph Treasure, Hildebrand Gurlitt, Nazi-looted art, Max Beckmann, Karl Buchholz, SPK, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Goering, Kirchner, Degenerate Art Action, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Raubkunst, Welfenschatz, Hans Purrmann, Neue Sachlichkeit, Freund, Han Baldung Grien, Ferdinand Möller, Bernhard Böhmer, New Objectivity, Grosz

France Rejects Poland’s Bad Faith Efforts to Extradite Art Dealer Alexander Khochinsky

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on October 21, 2019 at 12:51 PM

My client Alexander Khochinsky is safely back in the United States after an eight-month ordeal spurred by Poland’s retaliation for his assertion of restitution for his mother’s property lost in Poland during the Holocaust. The rejection this month by the French courts of Poland’s request to extradite my client for prosecution in the courts of Poland—courts called out as lacking judicial independence by the European Court of Justice—was the second failed attempt by Poland to abuse the international extradition system, and came directly on the heels of being held in default in Khochinsky’s lawsuit here in the United States for damages arising out of Poland’s bad-faith extradition effort that ended in 2015. Khochinsky is represented in France by Jean-Jacques Neuer.

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Topics: Alexander Khochinsky, Nazi-looted art, Red Army, extradition, FSIA, "Girl with Dove", Antoine Pesne, Poland, Przemysl, USSR, Belzec, Lviv, Uzbekistan, European Court of Justice, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Tashkent, 28 U.S.C. § 1607, 28 U.S.C. § 1605(a), Paris Court of Appeal

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

Guelph Treasure Claims to Go Forward

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 18, 2019 at 4:47 PM

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today dismissed the petition to rehear en banc last year’s landmark ruling that the heirs of the art dealers who sold the Guelph Treasure (or Welfenschatz) may pursue their claims in U.S. federal court.  Defendants the Federal Republic of Germany and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (the SPK, or Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in English) had argued that claims under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act’s expropriation exception such as these are not violations of international law and also require a claimant to exhaust remedies abroad, a position rejected by prior decisions of the D.C. Circuit and by today’s ruling as well.  

Today’s decision confirms the first-of-its kind holding last year that a German state museum must face claims based on allegations of Nazi-looted art, a direct result of Germany’s failures through its so-called Advisory (often called Limbach) Commission to address seriously and comprehensively the state of Nazi-looted art in its national collections.  In the five years since denying the Guelph Treasure claimants any meaningful attention, Germany has fumbled through the Gurlitt fiasco and attempted other various distractions like its new fitful attention to colonial art (with no real progress there either). Germany has repeatedly disparaged my clients by suggesting that the matter was already "decided on the merits" before Germany's Advisory Commission.  This is false.  The Advisory Commission renders non-binding recommendations to state museums and has been roundly criticized for its opinions in 2014 and 2015 in particular, when my clients were denied justice.  There is no small irony in having to explain this in the context of Germany's request for a do-over after last year's ruling. 

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Topics: Third Reich, Guelph Treasure, Feist, Prussia, Germany, Nazi-looted art, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, SPK, Advisory Commission, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Goering, expropriation exception”, Nazi persecution, Boy Leading a Horse, NS Raubkunst, J.S. Goldschmidt, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, forced sale, Zacharias Hackenbroch, Welfenschatz, I. Rosenbaum, Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, HEAR Act, Paul Körner, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum

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

Zum Geburtstag Viel Glück? The Washington Principles Turn 20

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on October 30, 2018 at 10:21 AM

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the Washington Conference on Nazi-Era Assets and the corollary Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated Art that have driven much of the conversation since then.  Apollo magazine published my thoughts on the impact of the Washington Principles, which I reproduce below (British spelling, thank you), as well as a thoughtful piece by Martin P. Levy (a member of the UK Spoliation Advisory Panel, one of the commissions created in response to the Washington Principles).

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Topics: Nazi-looted art, SPK, Advisory Commission, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Washington Principles, HEAR Act, UK Spoliation Advisory Panel, Apollo Magazine, Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, Washington Conference on Nazi-Era Assets, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, National Gallery in London, Claims Conference, JUST Act

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)

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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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