Art Law Report

U.S. Solicitor General’s Office Advocates Broad Impunity for Nazi Art Thefts

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on May 28, 2020 at 2:32 PM

Late Tuesday evening—the day after Memorial Day no less—the United States Office of the Solicitor General filed a brief amicus curiae in our clients’ pending case against the Federal Republic of Germany and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz for restitution of the Guelph Treasure (in German, the Welfenschatz). This brief was in response to the Supreme Court’s invitation in January that the SG file a brief expressing the views of the United States. In an unprecedented abdication of 80 years of leadership redressing Nazi-looted art, the Solicitor General argued that there is no circumstance in which a Nazi-forced sale victimizing a German Jew in the 1930s could constitute a violation of international law such the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act would confer jurisdiction over either Germany or the SPK. The U.S. government has taken the position that only property claims against non-Germans suffice—even though, of course, the U.S. government has acknowledged in every relevant context since the early 1940s that Jews ceased to be full members of German society on the day Hitler assumed power: January 30, 1933. This is an historic disgrace. Germany has rightly been shamed for minimizing in court over the last five years the genocidal character of its persecution against Jews, but for the United States to do so the day after we rightly honored the hundreds of thousands of Americans who died to defeat Nazi Germany is appalling.

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, Monuments Men, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, Supreme Court, Holocaust Victims Redress Act, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Goering, FSIA, Monuments Fine Arts and Archives Program, Washington Principles, Federal Republic of Germany, Welfenschatz, Military Government Law 59, Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, HEAR Act, Wannsee Conference, D.C. Circuit, Military Government Law No. 59, london declaration

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

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

Germany and its Federal States Announce Collective Declaration with Respect to Colonial Artifacts and Human Remains

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on March 22, 2019 at 11:22 AM

Debate has peaked in the last year or so about the treatment and possible restitution of so-called colonial artifacts in Western (i.e., European and North American) museums.  The conversation is important for many reasons, but one interesting facet is the way in which the discussion moved from a peripheral topic to one consuming high-level government attention in a very short amount of time.  In the process, institutions that have been devoted for well over a century to artistic, archeologic, and ethnographic displays have found themselves in a very public conversation about the future and even the validity of their mission.  This discourse culminated last fall in a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, authored by Bénédicte Savoy of France and Felwine Sarr of Senegal, recommending (among other things, as discussed below), that objects sent to France should be returned if the country of origin requests it.  Germany has now joined the conversation with the announcement of a collective declaration addressed to the collection of German federal and state museums.  

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Topics: Berlin, ICOM, Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, Germany, Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, SPK, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, International Council of Museums, 1970 UNESCO Convention, Monika Grütters, Art Law Report, Capital Requirements Regulation, Bénédicte Savoy, Felwine Sarr, Emmanuel Macron, Humboldt Forum, Unter den Linden, Stadtschloss, Frederick the Great, East Germany, Volkskammer, Collective Declaration, Dahlem, Nama, Namibia, Federal Ministry of Culture, Media, and Sport, Länder, German South West Africa, Deutsches Zentrum Kulturverluste, Ethnological Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Herero

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

Herzog Heirs Win Again in Appeals Court on Jurisdiction Over Hungarian Museums

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 26, 2017 at 10:48 AM

A federal appeals court has upheld the growing consensus that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) confers jurisdiction over foreign state actors in possession of art allegedly looted by and/or overseen by the Nazis.  Upholding last year’s District Court decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the ruling in De Csepel v. Republic of Hungary that denied several Budapest museums’ motion to dismiss, while allowing the Republic of Hungary itself out of the case.  This is the heirs second successful trip to the appellate court, where their claims were upheld in 2013.  The case is the subject of a chapter in my newly-released book A Tragic Fate--Law and Ethics in the Battle Over Nazi-Looted Art (ABA Publishing). 

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Topics: Berlin, David de Csepel, Angela Maria Herzog, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Baron Herzog, Budapest University of Technology and Economics, Hungarian National Gallery, SPK, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, FSIA, expropriation exception”, Cassirer v. Kingdom of Spain, Federal Republic of Germany, András Herzog, Welfenschatz, genocide

Nazi-Looting and Forced Sales Support Jurisdiction—Guelph Treasure Ruling Analysis

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 3, 2017 at 10:02 AM

The decision on Friday to allow our clients’ claims to proceed against German and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz for the restitution of the Guelph Treasure (or Welfenschatz) is ground-breaking in important respects, and a welcome part of a consistent progression in the law of sovereign immunity over claims for Nazi-looted art.  As we noted in our initial reaction, it is the first decision in which a U.S. court has held that it has jurisdiction over Germany or an agency or instrumentality of it under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) for a claim to Nazi-looted or purchased art—though others have certainly tried—in this case finding the so-called expropriation exception applies.  Critically, it recognizes that claims about forced sales in the early days of Nazi persecution indeed create jurisdiction.  Moreover, the court agreed with our clients that Germany’s various excuses to avoid litigating the substance of a forced sale involving Hermann Goering based on pleas for deference or respect to the flawed Advisory Commission are no reason to dismiss the case.  

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, Germany, Nazi-looted art, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, SPK, Advisory Commission, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Goering, FSIA, Preemption, expropriation exception”, NS Raubkunst, sovereign immunity, Welfenschatz, HEAR Act

U.S. District Court Issues First of Its Kind Ruling Against Germany Over Renowned Guelph Treasure

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on March 31, 2017 at 4:32 PM

Under Landmark Ruling, Germany Must Now Defend Nazi-Looted Art Claims in U.S. Court

WASHINGTON (March 31, 2017)- The United States District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled that claims over the famed Guelph Treasure can proceed against Germany in a United States court. This is the first time Germany will have to defend itself in the U.S. against allegations of looted Nazi art and artifacts. The claims arise out of the 1935 forced sale by a consortium of Jewish art dealers to Hermann Goering’s minions of the famed collection of medieval artifacts known as the Guelph Treasure.  The claims were filed by clients of Sullivan & Worcester LLP against the Federal Republic of Germany and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or SPK).  The court rejected the Defendants’ arguments that they are immune from suit and held that the Plaintiffs’ claims can be considered a taking of property in violation of international law for the purpose of evaluating the court’s jurisdiction over Germany and the SPK..  Jed Leiber, Alan Philipp, and Gerald Stiebel may now proceed to litigate their claims for  their property’s rightful return.  Leiber, Philipp, and Stiebel are also represented by S&W’s co-counsel in this matter, Markus Stötzel and Mel Urbach, experienced counselors in the return of Nazi-looted art who have been fighting this case for over eight years and who decried Germany continuing to defend the Nazis’ and Herman Goering’s theft from Jews.

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, Nazi-looted art, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Mel Urbach, SPK, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Goering, FSIA, expropriation exception”, NS Raubkunst, J.S. Goldschmidt, Markus Stötzel, Saemy Rosenberg, Adolf Hitler, Federal Republic of Germany, Zacharias Hackenbroch, Nicholas M. O'Donnell, Welfenschatz, I. Rosenbaum, Paul Körner, Wannsee Conference

Sea Change in Nazi-looted Art Claims? The HEAR Act is Put Into Action

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on March 1, 2017 at 2:43 PM

Two pending cases have invoked the new law

A recent article in the New York Times highlights the change that the recent passage of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act of 2016 has had on disputes about the timeliness of claims for allegedly Nazi-looted art.  The odd part, however, is that the case cited by the Times is not one in which the HEAR Act has been invoked or argued, though it could be some day.  As far as we are aware, there has been briefing on the effect of the HEAR Act in two cases, my clients’ claim against the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) and Germany in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, and Laurel Zuckerman’s claim as representative of the Leffmann estate in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.  Only two months after its passage, the law is already changing the terms of debate.

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Topics: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Germany, Seated Woman wiht Bent Left Leg (Torso), Bakalar v. Vavra, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Fritz Grünbaum, Egon Schiele, David Bakalar, HEAR Act, Richard Nagy, Laurel Zuckerman, Alice Leffmann

Widespread Criticism Continues from Historians Over Germany’s and SPK’s Revisionism Concerning Holocaust and Forced Sales of Art

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on November 19, 2015 at 12:48 PM

We reported last week on the outrage over the decision by Germany and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) to argue in their motion to dismiss my clients’ claims to the Welfenschatz that a commercial interaction between German Jews and a cabal instigated by Hermann Goering in 1935 “predated the Holocaust by several years.” As we noted last week, the suggestion that the Holocaust was a distant possibility in 1935 was an indefensible statement, factually, historically, and ethically. The initial reaction was swift and severe. As Germany gets ready to host the First Conference of the German Centre for Cultural Property Losses next week, its policies are hurtling in the wrong direction.

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Topics: Jewish Week Mel Urbach, Hermann Goering First Conference of the German Cen, Guelph Treasure, Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, Henning Kahmann, Atlanta, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Varda Neumann Federal Administrative Court, Yale University, Marion Kaplan, New York University, Germany, Nazi-looted art, Hitler, Kristallnacht Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Markus Stoetzel, Emory University, Behrens, Holocaust, Bloodlands, SPK, Advisory Commission, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Restitution, Los Angeles, World War II, Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil, Washington, Raubkunst, Timothy Snyder, Welfenschatz

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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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