Actress Helen Mirren testified before federal lawmakers Tuesday in support of a bill that would make it easier for Holocaust victims and their families to seek art stolen by the Nazis. Former Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate and led Tuesday’s hearing.
The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act would set a six-year statute of limitations on claims for Nazi-era stolen art, which would begin upon discovery of the art. Currently, lawyers for people and institutions accused of owning the art have argued that the statute begins when the Nazi-era crime was committed—during World War II. In some states, that statute expires after only a few years.
“Over 70 years later, we’re still trying to cope with the consequences of the Holocaust,” Cruz said during the hearing. “This bill will help ensure that claims for restitution of Nazi-looted art are adjudicated based on the actual facts and merits” and not “by technical or non-merits defenses that far too often work to the disadvantage of Holocaust victims and their families.”
Referring to his co-sponsors—Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, who introduced the bill in April; New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer; and Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal—Cruz said, “There are many issues on which the sponsors of this legislation...might disagree. But on this issue, I am proud to see bipartisan cooperation, coming together in defense of principles of justice.”
Mirren testified during the hearing about her portrayal of Maria Altmann—a real-life Holocaust survivor who sought her family’s Gustav Klimt painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, from the Austrian government—in the 2015 film Woman in Gold.
“It’s a terribly sad fact that more than 70 years later, victims of the Holocaust and their families are still contemplating whether to seek restitution for what was stolen from them,” Mirren said. “A lack of a legal assurance that at least they can have their say in court—this discourages them from taking action.”
She continued, “Restitution is so much more, much more than that, than reclaiming a material good…. It gives Jewish people and other victims of the Nazi terror the opportunity to reclaim their history, their culture, their memories and, most importantly, their families.”
The hearing took place before two Senate subcommittees. Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire who is president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of the council of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, also testified, as did art restitution experts from Christie’s auction house and the Commission for Art Recovery and an author who has written about his efforts to recover a family member’s art.
The U.S. government has taken previous steps, some that started as early as 1945, to help recover the estimated 650,000 works of art stolen by the Nazis. As a major turning point, restitution experts point to the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, hosted by the U.S. Department of State, which established principles for dealing with restitution claims.
But the principles didn’t go far enough, those same experts say. Nor did the subsequent American Alliance of Museums guidelines and similar conferences in Lithuania in 2000 and the Czech Republic in 2009. Speaking with Newsweek, some of those experts point to institutions increasingly using technical defenses, such as the statute of limitations, to hold on to art.
Raymond Dowd, a lawyer who has represented claimants in several Nazi-era restitution cases, says the bill is an “earth-shattering” and unprecedented step forward. “Museums have worked to shut the courthouse doors to these victims, so this would open the courthouse doors, and it’s extraordinary,” he says.
Lauder was involved in the restitution of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which now hangs in his Neue Galerie in New York City. Speaking with Newsweek earlier this year, Lauder recalled how, as U.S. ambassador to Austria in the 1980s, he visited an abandoned monastery where the Nazis had apparently stashed some items they had looted.
“The pictures had all been stolen, and the frames were left. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Wow, they’re like ghosts,’” he recalled of the artworks. “I began to realize how extremely important this was. Billions of dollars, many, many billions, of works of art still out there.”
The bill will likely move from the subcommittee level to the full Senate Judiciary Committee and then must be placed on the agenda for a vote.