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Please do note that some of the analysis of the applicable statute of limitations has been superseded by the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR Act), but the case went to a final judgment before that law was passed and was thus not affected by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