Art Law Report

“Moralistic Preening” and Broken Commitments Under the Washington Principles—Ninth Circuit Chastises Spain for Keeping Nazi-looted Pissarro but Rules Painting Will not Return to Cassirer Family

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on August 18, 2020 at 1:12 PM

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit yesterday affirmed the 2019 judgment that allowed the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Museum in Madrid to retain Camille Pissarro’s Rue St. Honoré, après-midi, effet de pluie (Rue St. Honoré, Afternoon, Rain Effect) (1892), a painting sold under duress by Lilly Cassirer to a Nazi in 1939. Absent rehearing by the full Ninth Circuit or Supreme Court review, the decision may bring to an end the Cassirers decades-old effort to win restitution of a painting that no one disputes is Nazi-looted art, yet the museum refuses to return. The result turns on the highly deferential standard of review for findings of fact by the trial court about the state of knowledge by Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza when he acquired the painting in 1976. Yet the Ninth Circuit’s lack of enthusiasm for this result fairly leaps off the page, however, first with its decision to issue an unsigned opinion not for publication, and by seconding the District Court’s disappointment in the ruling under review “that Spain and TBC’s refusal to return the Painting to the Cassirers is inconsistent with Spain’s moral commitments under the Washington Principles [on Nazi-Confiscated Art] and Terezin Declaration.” The Court of Appeals’ statement about Spain and the museum that “It is perhaps unfortunate that a country and a government can preen as moralistic in its declarations, yet not be bound by those declarations” is a reminder of the limitations of these moral imperatives that, ironically, many current possessors argue are sufficient to address the problem of Nazi-looted art. It is absolutely true that moral principles often do not have the force of law. It is equally true, however, that flouting moral principles warrants moral sanction. And as multiple judges of the United States have found, Spain deserves just that.

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Topics: Terezin Declaration, Guelph Treasure, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Rue St. Honoré après-midi êffet de pluie, Claude Cassirer, Cassirer, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, FSIA, expropriation exception”, Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen- Bornemisza, Welfenschatz, A Tragic Fate, Reichskammer der bildenden Künste, Jakob Scheidwimmer, Reich Chamber of the Visual Arts, Madrid

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

When Will We Get There?  The World Gathers in London to Consider the State of Restitution of Nazi-Looted Art.

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on September 15, 2017 at 5:13 PM

The National Gallery London hosted on September 12, 2017 the much-anticipated conference “70 Years and Counting: the Final Opportunity?” organized by the United Kingdom Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport (DCCS), and the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE). Delegates from numerous countries gathered to consider the state of progress on the efforts to identify and return works of art lost during the Nazi era.  While the event had a truly international flair, the discussion centered primarily on the five countries that have created some sort of process to consider assertions of looted art in response to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art: England, France, Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany. 

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Topics: Victoria and Albert Museum, Kunstrückgabebeirat, Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, National Gallery London, Constantine Cannon LLP, Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, Christie's, Advisory Commission, Johannes Nathan, Monica Dugot, Imke Gielen, Sotheby's, Neumeister Auction House, Richard Aronowitz-Mercer, Tony Baumgartner, Clyde & Co., John Glen, UK Spoliation Advisory Panel, The Orpheus Clock, Art Restitution Advisory Board, Margreet Soeting, H. Blairman & Sons Ltd., Katrin Stoll, Department for Digital Culture Media & Sport, DCCS, CLAE, 70 Years and Counting: the Final Opportunity?, Gabriele Finaldi, David Lewis, Minister for the Arts Heritage and Tourism, Sir Paul Jenkins, Dr. Antonia Boström, von Trott zu Solz Lammek, Simon Goodman, Sir Donnell Deeny, Jan Bank, Restitutions Committee of the Netherlands, Dr. Reinhard Binder-Krieglstein, Professor Dr. Reinhard Rürup, Jean-Pierre Bady, Commission pour l’indemnisation des victimes, CVIS, Dr. Christian Fuhrmeister, British Library, Nathan Fine Art, Stedelijk Museum, Pierre Valentine, Martin Levy

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

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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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