Sunday, March 28, 2010

Art Litigation: American Association of Museums Should Be Prosecuted For Concealing Stolen Property

MoMA's Glenn Lowry - Asserting Statutes of Limitations Against Heirs of Nazi Persecutees and Getting Richly Compensated For It

On Friday, I attended a panel on the U.S. State Department's proposal to set up a U.S. Commission to deal with the problem of Nazi-looted art in U.S. museum collections.   More on the panel, Wrestling the Dead Hand of History organized by Prof. Jennifer Kreder here.

Amb. Stuart Eizenstat - Expressing Outrage

The atmosphere was one of unanimous outrage over the misbehavior of U.S. museums and their lack of adherence to the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.  U.S. museums have taken to suing heirs of victims of Nazi persecution to avoid discovery and litigation "on the merits".   U.S. museums assert laches and statute of limitations defenses, knowing that it will damage international efforts to obtain recoveries of artworks from museum collections around the world.  If the U.S. is not going to support Jewish heirs, then who will?

The Jewish Claims Conference and Ronald Lauder's Commission for Art Recovery have asked U.S. museums to renounce the use of "technical" legal defenses such as laches and statutes of limitations as being unethical.   According to Lauder's lawyer Charles Goldstein, who signed the letter, the AAM and AAMD have not even bothered to respond to the request.   This is not the usual museum practice in dealing with a billionaire's lawyer.

In the postwar era, U.S. museums acquired tens of thousands of potentially-looted artworks. They've given virtually none of it back, have not properly researched their collections, and sit back hoping that the heirs of an exterminated population will never figure it out.   According to the museums, it is the job of the people who were murdered to finance and assert claims, after which, museums will decide whether or not to give the work back.

Museums claim that no one had any idea about the Holocaust when they acquired these artworks from the 1940's until today, often as donations, almost always without paperwork.   Since the severe Nazi persecution of Jews and the spoliation of their property was on the front page of every newspaper in the world starting in March 1933, the museums are engaging in a particularly pernicious form of Holocaust denial.

The custom and practice in the art world has always been to get documentation of the artwork's prior ownership and authenticity.  If you didn't get the paperwork, you were taking a risk that the property was stolen.   This practice has not changed, yet museums falsely claim that this is a recent development.  Wealthy Americans who bought European art at bargain prices without paperwork in the '40's, '50's and 60's knew darned well that they were probably buying stolen art.  Museum people always knew of the problem and were specifically and repeatedly warned in writing by the U.S. State Department in the 1940's and 1950's against acquiring artworks lacking paperwork.  Receiving stolen property has alway been a crime.

18 U.S.C. § 662 : US Code - Section 662: Receiving stolen property within special maritime and territorial jurisdiction

Whoever, within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, buys, receives, or conceals any money, goods, bank notes, or other thing which may be the subject of larceny, which has been feloniously taken, stolen, or embezzled, from any other person, knowing the same to have been so taken, stolen, or embezzled, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; but if the amount or value of thing so taken, stolen or embezzled does not exceed $1,000, he shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.

(Italics supplied).

U.S. museums that refuse to disclose the documents necessary to trace the true owners of artworks in their collections should be prosecuted and their directors jailed.

Alfred Flechtheim - U.S. Museums Will Not Reveal Provenance Documents Relating To His 1933 Inventory
Image Jacob Hilsdorf 1910 courtesy Wikipedia

U.S. museums have it backwards and should be trying to figure out whose stolen property they are holding.  It was heartwarming to hear Goldstein affirm that museums do not have a fiduciary duty to litigate all claims and defenses relating to the stolen art in their collections.

When will the AAM and AAMD respond?   And without Robert Morgenthau on the scene, who will keep the museums honest?

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