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U.S. Museums Fail to Address Nazi-Era Stolen Art Claims

WJRO Report: Legislation Would Ensure Justice for Holocaust Victims, Heirs 
Resolutions Should Focus on Merit, Not Technicalities 

New York, June 25 – Prominent U.S. museums have evaded the restitution of Nazi-looted artworks to their rightful owners and heirs by refusing to resolve claims on their facts and merits and by asserting technical defenses, such as statutes of limitations, according to a new report.

Issued by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and authored with the pro-bono assistance of the American law firm Dickstein Shapiro LLP, the report calls for three recommendations to promote merit-based resolutions of Holocaust-era claims against U.S. museums. A direct link to the full report is here.

These recommendations include encouraging U.S. museums to live up to the spirit of the Washington Conference Principles, Terezin Declaration and the Guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM); having the AAM ensure compliance of its member museums by withholding accreditation; and enacting legislation to extend statutes of limitations for Holocaust-era restitution claims.

The Washington Conference Principles and Terezin Declaration are international statements endorsed by 44 and 47 countries, respectively. The United States played a prominent role in their drafting. The AAM has not enforced its own guidelines, which call for claims to be considered on merit.

American museums named in the report as improperly defending against Nazi-looted art claims include the Toledo Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma.

“Museums are central to a civilized society,” said Gideon Taylor, WJRO chair of operations. “The American museum community, while understandably an advocate for artwork to remain in public hands, must follow through on its prior commitments not to taint collections with art stolen during the Holocaust.”

“It is immoral that seven decades after the fall of the Third Reich, stolen works of art – some from owners who perished in the Holocaust – still hang in museums across the United States,” Ronald Lauder, chairman of WJRO and president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), said. He has called the artworks “prisoners of war” that were stolen during the greatest displacement of art in human history. The WJC is a WJRO member-organization.

One high-profile case mentioned in the WJRO report involves a work by Camille Pissarro, “Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep,” now sitting in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. The Nazis had seized the painting, originally owned by a French Jewish businessman, in 1941. It eventually made its way to New York and was sold to an American couple in 1956. In 2000, the Oklahoma museum received the painting as a bequest.

After the daughter of the original owners discovered the painting’s location, the museum would not return it. She then pursued legal action, only to find that the museum raised a series of technical defenses to deny the claim, including challenging the jurisdiction of a federal court in New York.

“It is clear that ultimately, only legislative change to extend statutes of limitations for Holocaust-era restitution claims will ensure the opportunity for cases to be reviewed on their merits,” Lauder also said.

The WJRO does not get involved in specific lawsuits or individual cases, but advocates for institutions to act ethically.

The WJRO report specifically highlights the AAM’s Common Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era, which define how AAM member-institutions should handle Nazi-era claims. The guidelines, confirmed by AAM leadership in congressional testimony, state that AAM museums should respond “openly, seriously, responsively, and with respect for the dignity of all parties involved” and that “each claim should be considered on its merits.” Yet the AAM has failed to uphold and enforce these standards.

“Ethical codes cannot get pushed aside because claimants pursue legal avenues to recover artwork,” Taylor said.

The overall aggressive litigation tactics of these museums, the report also asserts, likely deter other Holocaust victims and their heirs from pursuing claims for restitution.

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