Art Law Report

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)

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

Event—The Future of Nazi-Looted Art Recovery in the US and Abroad

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on July 25, 2018 at 1:20 PM

I am pleased to be taking part in a symposium at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles on September 26, 2018, “The Future of Nazi Looted Art Recovery in the US and Abroad.”  Presented by Cypress LLP and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art/Claremont Graduate University, the program assembles an impressive group of presenters in whose company I’m grateful to be included.  Registration is available here, and the schedule is below:

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Topics: Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Nazi-looted art, Simon Frankel, Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Covington & Burling LLP, Anne Webber, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, Sotheby's, Nicholas M. O'Donnell, Daniel McClean, Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, HEAR Act, Isabel von Klitzing, The Orpheus Clock, Simon Goodman, Lucian Simmons, Eyal Dolev, Jonathan Petropolous, Claremont McKenna College, The Faustian Bargain, Laurence Eisenstein, Eisenstein Malanchuk LLP, Lothar Fremy, Rosbach & Fremy, Nixon Peabody LLP, Mark Labaton, Getty Institute, Bob Muller, René Gimpel, Cypress LLP, Jonathan Neil, Skirball Center, The Art World in Nazi Germany, Dr. Lynn Rother, Thaddeus Stauber, Stephen Clark

Court of Appeals Upholds Claims to Renowned Guelph Treasure Sold Under Duress to Nazi Agents

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on July 10, 2018 at 12:33 PM

(WASHINGTON-July 10, 2018) The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has affirmed the right of the heirs to the so-called Guelph Treasure (known in German as the Welfenschatz) to seek restitution in U.S. courts for the value of the treasured art collection. The appellate court rejected Defendants’ arguments that U.S. courts lack jurisdiction, or that Germany’s treatment of its Jews in the 1930s should be immune from judicial scrutiny.  While the Federal Republic of Germany itself was dismissed as a defendant, the actual possessor and key party in interest (the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or SPK) must now prove that a 1935 transfer of the collection by a consortium of Jewish art dealers to Hermann Goering’s minions was a legitimate transaction if they are to retain the collection. 

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, Gestapo, Z.M. Hackenbroch, Prussia, Germany, Nazi-looted art, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Markus Stoetzel, Mel Urbach, SPK, Hermann Goering, FSIA, NS Raubkunst, Sullivan & Worcester LLP, J.S. Goldschmidt, Adolf Hitler, Nicholas M. O'Donnell, Welfenschatz, I. Rosenbaum, D.C. Circuit, Consortium, Genocide Convention, Reichstag, flight taxes, Baltimore Sun, Luftwaffe

Alexander Khochinsky Files Suit Against Poland for Retaliation Related to WW II Property Claims

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

(WASHINGTON, D.C.-June 27, 2018) Alexander Khochinsky, the son of a Polish Jew who fled her home just steps ahead of the German invasion in 1941, has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against Poland for that country’s efforts to extradite him after he sought restitution of his mother’s property.  Khochinsky, an art dealer, reached out to Poland about a painting, Girl with Dove by Antoine Pesne, that he had inherited from his parents and that looked similar to one that Poland was seeking, and asked to open a dialogue about what had happened to his mother’s home.  In retaliation, Poland charged him with a crime and asked the United States to extradite him for prosecution.  The U.S. District Court in Manhattan dismissed the request for extradition in 2015, but by then Khochinsky had suffered months of detention and the destruction of his business.

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Topics: Alexander Khochinsky, Nazi-looted art, Red Army, Holocaust, extradition, "Girl with Dove", Sullivan & Worcester LLP, Antoine Pesne, Poland, Nicholas M. O'Donnell, Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Przemysl, Leningrad

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

Something’s Rotten in Düsseldorf—Max Stern Exhibition Cancelled in Response to Restitution Claim

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on November 28, 2017 at 10:33 AM

As Germany puts on the much-anticipated exhibition in Bonn of Cornelius Gurlitt’s disputed collection, a strange story has developed not too far away in Düsseldorf.  The Stadtmuseum, which is administered by the city itself, had organized—but now cancelled—“Max Stern: from Düsseldorf to Montreal.”   The exhibition was scheduled to open in February in Düsseldorf, before traveling to the Haifa art museum in September of 2018 and to the McCord Museum in Montreal in 2019.  The city’s acknowledgement that the decision was based on a claim for restitution from the Max Stern Estate is a disturbing development that provides no sound reason to cancel a show about an important dealer who, it is undisputed, was a seminal figure of Nazi persecution. 

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Topics: Nuremberg laws, Cologne, Cornelius Gurlitt, Germany, The Art Newspaper, Köln, Nazi-looted art, Düsseldorf, The New York Times, A Tragic Fate, Max Stern from Düsseldorf to Montreal, McCord Museum, Reichskammer der bildenden Künste, Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern Foundation, Max Stern Restitution Project, Girl from the Sabine Mountains, Max Stern, Haifa, Francis Xavier Winterhalter, Mädchen aus den Sabiner Bergen, The Artist’s Children, Wilhelm von Schadow, Düsseldorf Kunstpalast, Andreas Achenbach, Sicilian Landscape, Norwegian Landscape, Galerie Max Stern, Mayor Thomas Geisel

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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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