Holocaust survivors and their descendants will likely have an easier time reclaiming art that the Nazis stole decades ago, thanks to a new law that President Barack Obama finalized late last week. The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act erodes some of the legal technicalities that art museums have used to hold on to Nazi-looted art when faced with claims.
“The HEAR Act will end an enduring injustice for Holocaust victims and their families,” said Ronald Lauder, chairman of both the Commission for Art Recovery and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, in a statement. “For too long, governments, museums, auction houses and unscrupulous collectors allowed this egregious theft of culture and heritage to continue, imposing legal barriers like arbitrary statutes of limitations to deny families prized possessions stolen from them by the Nazis.” Lauder, a cosmetics company executive, helped support the act and testified on its behalf before Senate subcommittees in June.
Since World War II, the U.S. government has led efforts to track down an estimated 650,000 art objects stolen from Jews and other victims by the Nazis. Art restitution advocates say that some 100,000 objects remain missing. Even when survivors or descendants locate artwork and file claims, museums and other art institutions are sometimes unwilling to return them and use legal technicalities such as the statute of limitations to hold on to the art. Those practices go against guidelines that national governments and museum associations have established in recent years for dealing with such claims.
In a recent case, Léone Meyer, who was orphaned in France during the Holocaust and later adopted by the family that owned the Galeries Lafayette department stores, spent her adult life searching for Camille Pissarro’s La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons. The Nazis had seized the French impressionist painting from her adoptive parents’ bank vault during the war. In 2012, her son discovered that the painting had made its way to the University of Oklahoma’s art museum.
Meyer sued in order to reclaim the work, but the university argued that the statute of limitations had passed. In February, after years of negotiations, the parties announced they had settled. The painting will soon rotate every few years between the university and a French institution of Meyer’s choosing.
The HEAR Act gives claimants six years after discovering the whereabouts of stolen art to file a claim. Previously, lawyers for people or institutions in possession of the art have said that the statute of limitations, which in some states expires after only a few years, began when the Nazis first stole the art decades ago.
“It really sends a signal to the world about the U.S. government’s seriousness in undoing Nazi wrongs,” says Raymond Dowd, a lawyer who has represented claimants in a handful of Nazi-era restitution cases. Dowd says this could be the most important federal policy regarding Nazi-looted art since the end of World War II. The government had previously issued laws or policy statements on the issue, such as the 1998 Holocaust Victims Redress Act, but “this is the first time that the U.S. has actually acted since World War II, taking concrete legislative action, to assist Holocaust victims in recovering property.”
Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced the act. The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate both passed the bill earlier in December. “With the president’s signature, we delivered a long-overdue victory for the families of Holocaust victims,” Cruz said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation rights a terrible injustice and sends a clear signal that America will continue to root out every noxious vestige of the Nazi regime.”
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