Panelists David Rowland and Lauren Fogle continue the conversation from the recent panel discussion Recovered Treasures: Rescuing Europe’s Stolen Artworks, answering questions from audience participants. This event took place on Friday, March 27, 2015 at Deutsches Haus at New York University. This event was co-produced by The American Friends of Bucerius, Deutsches Haus at New York University, and NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
Do you see any progress in the way Nazi-looted art is handled in Germany?
David: Yes, the Gurlitt affair has shined a light on this and there is general recognition there that this topic must be treated seriously. But there is still much work to do. A change eliminating the statute of limitations in Nazi-looted art cases would be helpful.
What current laws are in place in the U.S. to help heirs of Jewish art collectors who suspect they may be missing pieces from their collections? What areas in the law still need work on this topic?
David: With the exception of California which has passed laws extending the statute of limitation to sue in Nazi looted art cases, the US has no specific law which helps Jewish victims obtain their artworks back. So US law does not take into account that this happened over 70 years ago and this means that in most cases it is impossible to bring viable law suits to obtain back Nazi-looted art in the United States. The US also does not have a national art commission as many countries in Europe have. A federal law eliminating the statute of limitations in Nazi-era art cases would be very helpful in terms of giving Nazi victims a chance to obtain back their artworks looted, stolen or sold under duress in the Nazi era.
What is your personal view on the statute of limitations issue in regards to stolen art? What do you think is a reasonable time frame to allow for people to file a claim?
David: As stated above, statutes of limitation and other technical defenses should be eliminated entirely with respect to Nazi era art claims.
Lauren: I think that statutes of limitations can be helpful in some cases, but what is more important is the availability of evidence. In some cases, there is information that is de-classified many years after an event (like a war). If this information comes to light, and a claimant is not able to use it because of a statute of limitations, I think that is unfair. So I think we need to pay attention to how evidence is unveiled and take into account the fact that governments keep information away from the public sometimes for reasons of security.
Do movies like The Monuments Men and Woman in Gold and other media attention this topic receives play any role in helping restitution cases? How important is public support on the issue to helping families retrieve stolen art?
David: Events such as the discovery of the Gurlitt hoard and books and movies about this topic are extremely important in raising public awareness regarding this issue. Since the Gurlitt hoard became known to the public, interest in this area has increased dramatically and that is good and important.
Lauren: I think that movies and books are great ways to bring this issue out to the public and start discussions. I don’t think they should have any real bearing in a court of law. I don’t think public opinion should affect court cases, but it can affect the laws we enact. If most people feel that it’s been too easy, or too hard, for previous owners (or their relatives) to get stolen art returned to them, then that should be reflected in the actions of elected officials
What more can museums do to ensure they don’t own looted art? Or if they do, what procedures are or should be in place to help them return it to the rightful owner?
David: Many museums want to do the right thing and return Nazi era art to its rightful owners. However, many other museums do not want to return such art and would prefer to keep it using all possible arguments. The Swedish museum which refused initially to return the stolen Nolde painting is a perfect example of this. The root of the problem is that museums which hold this art cannot also be the judge and jury, because they of course have a self-interest in keeping the art. So there must be a way to send the case to an independent third party decision maker, either to a court, which can decide the case on the merits without the possibility of dismissal based on technical defenses, or by creating a tribunal or art commission with specific powers to hear these cases and render binding decisions on the merits. Perhaps, with all of the publicity now surrounding these cases, legislation may be enacted to permit decisions on the merits in these important cases.
Lauren: Museums need to be ahead of the issue and not behind. The MFA in Boston has a full time provenance researcher, a full page dedicated to Nazi art looting on their website, and has clearly identified all the works (that they currently know of) which may have been looted or sold under duress during the Nazi period. Other museums, like the Art Institute in Chicago, have done similar things. It is often extremely hard to prove if a piece of art was looted and there will no doubt be false claims. Art museums can’t give away their collections without clear proof and nobody should expect them to do so. What we should expect is transparency and an effort to find the truth.