Sunday, May 19, 2013

Nazi Looted Art and Cocaine: When Museum Directors Take It, It Call the Cops

Egon Schiele's Girl with Black Hair - Stolen From Fritz Grunbaum When He Was In the Dachau Concentration Camp, now at the Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College

The Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion, as part of their Nuremberg volume, just published my article:  Nazi Looted Art and Cocaine: When Museum Directors Take It, Call the Cops.  Check out Volume 14 here.

The article argues that the U.S. government clearly condemned the theft of artworks from victims of Nazism and that federal and state statutes have consistently forbidden the traffic and concealment of stolen property.  As such, Nazi looted art should be treated as a contraband substance, like cocaine, and should be returned to its true owners under the common law precept that no one can take good title from a thief.   The article further argues that federal courts have misconstrued state statutes of limitations and principles of equity to permit museums and private collectors to inappropriately launder title to stolen artworks.  The article arguest that it is time for prosecutors to act and that the National Stolen Property Act gives them a weapon to do so.  They have the weapons and evidence, only the political courage to confront powerful museums with the evidence is lacking.  The article argues that museums, colleges and individuals who use technical defenses to keep stolen property as the Toledo Museum of Fine Art, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the MoMA and the Guggenheim have done bring only disgrace upon themselves and don't clean title to the stolen goods.   The article further argues that this is not a victimless crime because the wealthy donors who have "donated" the stolen artworks to museums got a tax break for the "fair market value" of the artworks.  Accordingly these tax cheats, with the complicity of inattentive museum trustees, have stolen from their fellow taxpayers and have unfairly saddled publicly-supported institutions with costly problems.
 Copyright law, fine art and navigating the courts. All practice, no theory.
Copyright Litigation Handbook (Thomson Reuters Westlaw 2012-2013) by Raymond J. Dowd Copyright Litigation Handbook on Westlaw


Peter M. Thornber said...

It's not a victimless crime in that such loot has been misappropriated from the original 1930s/40s owner[s], thus they and their heirs have been deprived of ownership, possession and enjoyment.

Under English Common Law, as augmented by statute if the museum director/curator/accessioner were aware, or it could be shewn, given due diligence, that consciousness could be assumed or inferred, of provenance and title broken by such theft on the part of a criminal regime, surely the museum trustees and their responsible officer would be liable to prosecution for receiving stolen goods. And I would submit that theft would include misappropriation by means of intimidation or undue pressure.

Items may have passed through any number of hands before being acquired by a museum.

Might it be a possibility that some items could be alleged to have "lost"/"mislaid" in the fog of war? Or have been taken by the soldiery and suchlike as "souvenirs"?

Due diligence, surely, is the heart of the matter.

I would suggest a start would be the compilation of a register of Nazi-looted art. Could this be done under UNESCO auspices?

How extendible is this to other occasions and circumstances, such as the Russian Revolution, etc.had

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant argument. I will be sure to repeat it at every museum director's dinner to which I'm invited!

Anonymous said...

I suggest you check out the case involving Peter Brant's acquisition of a Warhol, Red Elvis (reported in ArtNewsletter in 2005). You might find it interesting.