Over the course of this winter, the art world has seen several significant developments in legal cases concerning the restitution of art looted by the Nazis during World War II. This restitution effort has been ongoing for decades; however, the legal significance of these cases became more popular with the release of the film Woman in Gold in 2015. The movie recounts the story of Maria Altmann, who fled Vienna during World War II, and her quest with attorney E. Randol Schoenberg to reclaim her family’s portrait of her aunt, Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, from Austria’s Belvedere Museum. The legal battle ultimately entailed a United States Supreme Court ruling and Austrian arbitration panel, granting Altmann rightful ownership of the painting.
Since then, there have been numerous successful cases granting claimants ownership to previously looted works across the world. Recently, the French National Assembly passed a unanimous vote to return fifteen works of art that the Nazis had stolen to the descendants of the Jewish families who once owned them. These works included paintings, sculptures, and drawings by artists such as Gustav Klimt, Marc Chagall, and Maurice Utrillo held by several French museums. The decision constitutes a significant French effort to identify and return works that were taken from Jewish families by the Nazis, and it is the first time that the French government has passed a law requiring the restitution of these works to the heirs, thus marking an important international development in art restitution.
There have also been several significant recent developments for the restitution of Nazi-looted art within the United States. In January, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning the ownership of a Pissarro painting, Rue Saint Honoré, dans l’après-midi. Effet de pluie, sold by Lilly Cassirer Neubauer in exchange for visas for her and her husband to leave Germany during World War II. The parties do not dispute whether the Nazis looted it but rather focus on a choice of law issue as to which country’s laws should apply in the case. The United States Court of Restitution Appeals granted Neubauer a settlement from the German government for the stolen painting after the war, but by the time the family found the painting in Spain’s Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, it had been on display there for eight years. Under Spanish law, good title is transferred after six years of public possession of someone else’s property, even if it was initially stolen. However, California law specifies that clean title can never pass onto subsequent owners once an object has been stolen, even if it was purchased in good faith. In resolving the issue of which rule of law should apply, the Supreme Court’s holding will thus have major implications for the possible restitution of this work of art.
In another recent case, the heirs of artist Piet Mondrian claim that the painting, Composition With Blue, currently held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was stolen by Nazis during World War II. The museum received the painting from A.E. Gallatin, who had purchased it from the Buchholz Gallery, where Nazis often disposed of their looted art. The painting had been seized by the Nazis during World War II from a museum in Hanover, then transferred to a German dealer who sent the painting to New York, where Gallatin bought it. In response, the museum claims that the artist and his only heir never sought to reclaim this painting despite knowing of its location, so the private trust that brought suit has a meritless claim. The museum also claims that Gallatin was friends with Mondrian and that the artist was even aware that he owned it. The complaint has been filed with the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, and further developments in the case are pending.
Collectively, these cases demonstrate the ongoing legal battles concerning the restitution of Nazi-looted art to the Jewish families from whom they were stolen during World War II. The complex issues of choice of law, trusts and estates, and property law that arise in these cases demonstrate the legal difficulties that continue to pervade efforts to return looted art to the families and descendants of their previous owners.