Art Law Report

A Deaccessioning Decision Tree Grows in Brooklyn—Selling Museum Art in Hard Times

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on September 23, 2020 at 7:49 AM

Robin Pogrebin at the New York Times has written an excellent piece on the news that the Brooklyn Museum intends to sell several works from its collection to raise money. The museum explicitly relies on the pandemic-inspired announcement in April by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) relaxing its industry guidance (and pausing sanctions) with regard to the proceeds of the sale of art and how the resulting proceeds should or should not be used. The parallel announcement by a Syracuse museum that it intends to sell a Jackson Pollock painting in a manner more consistent with the old rules provides an instructive moment to consider what has really changed in six months of a new era.

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Topics: The Art Newspaper, Jackson Pollock, Deaccessioning, Boston Globe, Association of Art Museum Directors, Lucas Cranach the Elder, New York Times, AAMD, Berkshire Museum, Apollo Magazine, Brooklyn Museum, Robin Pogrebin, Syracuse University, Anne Pasternak, Lucretia, Courbet, Corot, Red Composition, Lisa Simpson, Donato de’ Bardi, NY Board of Regents, Jeff Jacoby, C. Montgomery Burns, Royal Academy of Arts

“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

U.S. Senate Report Takes a Swing at Money Laundering in the Art Market But Strikes Out on Substance

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on August 12, 2020 at 2:41 PM

A recent report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (headlined by Chairman Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, and Ranking Member Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware) has drawn widespread attention for its damning statements about the international art market. Focusing on purchases of art from major auction houses by Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, two Russian nationals described as “oligarchs” by the report, the Subcommittee makes a series of pronouncements about the supposed prevalence of money laundering in the art market, and the need for regulation to address this perceived problem. Yet upon closer read, the report is a recycling of clichés about the art market, a detailed description about the considerable diligence by the auction houses far beyond what any even theoretical regulation would require (thus begging the question of what lesser regulation would accomplish), and no discussion or empathy at all for the vast majority of small art businesses that could not possibly comply with such regulation and stay in business, let alone actually combat money laundering. In other words, in concluding that two men laundered money, the Senate committee deduces that the practice is rampant. This hardly follows as a matter of logic. Far from supporting the case for sweeping financial regulation of the art market, the report unintentionally makes the opposite point.

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Topics: OFAC, Vladimir Putin, Uniform Commercial Code, House of Representatives, New York Times, Responsible Art Market initiative, Money laundering, FinCEN, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Boris Rotenberg, oligarch, shell companies, suspicious activity reports, Banking Secrecy Act, Politically Exposed Persons, Arkady Rotenberg, Treasury, ultimate beneficial owner, UBO, Corporate Transparency Act of 2019, Tom Carper, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Rob Portman

U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Germany’s Appeal to Keep the Guelph Treasure, Taken by Nazi Agents in 1935

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on July 2, 2020 at 12:15 PM


(WASHINGTON-July 2, 2020) The United States Supreme Court today agreed to hear the appeal by Germany and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) seeking to dismiss the restitution claim by the heirs to the so-called Guelph Treasure (known in German as the Welfenschatz). The claims arise out of the forced transfer in 1935 of the Guelph Treasure by a consortium of Jewish art dealers to agents of Hermann Goering, who personally presented it as a gift to Hitler. In 2018, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over the claim under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA). That appellate court had rejected the Defendants’ arguments that U.S. courts lack jurisdiction, and that Germany’s treatment of its Jews in the 1930s should be immune from judicial scrutiny.

Sullivan partner Nicholas M. O’Donnell said, “we are grateful for the opportunity to address the Supreme Court on these important questions about holding Germany accountable for its Nazi-looted art. A 1935 transfer from German Jews to notorious art looter and war criminal Hermann Goering is the quintessential crime against international law, regardless of Germany’s Holocaust distortion in defending this case. Germany seeks to eliminate recourse for Nazi-looted art and the Court will have the chance to answer this question of critical importance for Holocaust victims.” O’Donnell added, “this is also an opportunity to rebuke the Department of Justice and State Department, who turned their back on decades of U.S. policy by siding with Germany’s effort to keep Nazi-looted art.”

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Topics: United States Supreme Court, Guelph Treasure, Nazi-looted art, Department of Justice, SPK, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Hermann Goering, NS Raubkunst, Gerald Stiebel, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Federal Republic of Germany, Alan Philipp, Welfenschatz, State Department, Paul Körner, Jed Leiber

Guelph Treasure Heirs Respond to U.S. Brief that Argued Nazi Art Theft Was a Domestic Affair

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on June 8, 2020 at 4:37 PM

On behalf of my clients seeking restitution of the Guelph Treasure, or Welfenschatz, we filed today our supplemental brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in response to the Brief of the United States as Amicus Curiae that the Solicitor General’s office submitted on May 26, 2020. You can read today’s brief here, and read more about the particular problems with the Solicitor General’s filing here, most notably the contention that the Nazis’ property crimes against German Jews should be considered a “domestic” issue that doesn’t implicate international law under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). It was particularly distressing that the brief was signed not only by the U.S. Department of Justice, but also the State Department.

The filing follows an increasing pattern of disregard for bipartisan Congressional action, in this case the 2016 Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act. Similarly, the 2017 Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Act that was enacted specifically to counter Poland’s and others’ hostility to restitution for Holocaust era assets has been ignored. The JUST Act required that the State Department issue a report on other countries’ restitution progress no later that November 9, 2019, yet no report has been issued. The State Department has a dedicated page on the JUST Act...which simply lists the law (Poland's embassy has its own rather self-serving version too). Something very curious is going on with restitution at the State Department, all the more heartbreaking given the 80 years of leadership on the topic by the United States.

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Topics: Guelph Treasure, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Supreme Court, SPK, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, FSIA, Welfenschatz, State Department, HEAR Act, JUST Act, solicitor general

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

Paddle 8 Creditors Battle Over Scope of New York Consignment Law

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on May 5, 2020 at 12:32 PM

Since online auctioneer Paddle 8 filed for bankruptcy protection in March, creditors of the company have begun filing their notices of claim in the bankruptcy case. One thing on which the creditors all seem to agree is that the current assets of Paddle 8 will be insufficient to cover its debts by a considerable margin. Paddle 8’s lenders and commercial landlord are by far the largest creditors, and standing out from the crowd will be difficult. The key for many consignors, therefore, will be whether they can convince the Bankruptcy Court that the money they seek is somehow distinct from the unsecured claims of the bulk of creditors. Based on filings to date, there is already considerable disagreement about the limited scope of New York’s consignment statute (N.Y. Arts & Cult. Affairs Law § 12.01) (NYACAL), the interpretation of which will be important to this and presumably many other bankruptcies to come. NYACAL protects consignment sale proceeds under certain circumstances when the artist of the work in question is the consignor—but not otherwise. For the charitable consignors, they may end up holding the bag.

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Topics: Bankruptcy Code, consignor, New York Arts & Cultural Affairs Law, Paddle 8, New American Cinema Group, UN Women National Committee UK, NYACAL, Lift Los Angeles, Penumbra Foundation

My column in Apollo Magazine on museums and deaccessioning in crisis

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 27, 2020 at 11:59 AM

Continuing our ongoing tracking of the effect of the Covid-19 lockdown on museums and arts organizations, I penned a column in Apollo magazine today. You can read the full article here (subscription required for more than three articles), the first paragraph is reprinted here as a teaser:

One key question for museums boards, management, and their supporters to ask right now is this: what do they actually want to accomplish when the Covid-19 crisis subsides and the lockdowns end? Is a museum its collection, its location, its staff or its visitors? Until recently we had the comparative luxury of asking these questions one museum crisis at a time. Should a small museum (for example, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts) survive at all costs without the collection that created its very importance? Should it seek a better home for its collection but perhaps lose some of its unique character or even its individual existence (see the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s merger with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)? Or should it evolve in a way that is perhaps contrary to its founders’ specific desires (the Barnes Foundation’s move to Philadelphia from the truly sui generis yet remote home in Lower Merion created by Dr Barnes)?

Now, with [read more here]

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Topics: National Academy Museum, National Gallery of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, ICOM, American Alliance of Museums, Philadelphia, AAM, Association of Art Museum Directors, International Council of Museums, Corcoran Gallery of Art, AAMD, Barnes Foundation, Pittsfield, Berkshire Museum, Apollo Magazine, UPMIFA, endowment, Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds

Fate of Museum Collections and Endowments Presents Hard Questions in Hard Times­

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 16, 2020 at 5:25 PM

Since analyzing the likely consequence of gallery and auctioneer insolvencies last month, we have been keeping an eye on how the economic crisis borne of the COVID19 pandemic is affecting the art world. Essentially every museum in the world has had to close its doors in the last month, with the previously unimaginable effect of a 100% drop in attendance revenue. Every museum, from the largest and best-endowed to the smallest and cash-strapped, is grappling with how to sustain its people, its mission, and its future. There are no easy answers, but the Association of Art Museum Directors issued yesterday an interesting update to its longstanding ethical guidelines concerning deaccessioning and restricted assets. As I remarked in a conversation with ArtNews yesterday on the topic, the question of what—and who—an endowment and an art collection is for have never been more relevant, or more difficult to answer. When Brandeis proposed to close the Rose Art Museum in 2009 in the midst of the last financial crisis, the effects were long-lasting. I have negotiated considerable specific requirements to gifts on behalf of museums and donors to account for what, before that event, many had not considered. What will this catastrophe, which is already far worse, bring?

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Topics: Brandeis, Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Alliance of Museums, Rose Art Museum, Association of Art Museum Directors, International Council of Museums, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, AAMD, Berkshire Museum, North Adams, Mass MoCA, COVID19, Board of Regents, Brian Allen, CARES Act, Financial Accounting Standards Board, Clark Art Institute, National Review

The Taxman Cometh­—Christie’s Penalty is the Latest Example of Sales and Use Tax Pitfalls

Posted by Nicholas O'Donnell on April 15, 2020 at 2:20 PM

News broke last week that auction house Christie’s had agreed to pay a $16.7 million fine to the Manhattan District Attorney for failing to collect sales tax between 2013 and 2017. This was surprising in many ways, but a reminder of the lurking dangers of sales and use tax in multi-state and international art transactions. While the variables can seem daunting, the decision-tree of how to account for sales and use tax need not be overly complicated. The Christie’s settlement is an opportunity to review the rules of the road.

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Topics: Christie's, Sales & Use Taxes, Dennis Kozlowski, Tyco International, Ltd., Manhattan DA

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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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