The US Congress is close to passing the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, which would make it easier in the US for heirs of Holocaust victims to recover art looted by the Nazis—but the clock is ticking as the legislative season nears its end. On 7 December, the House of Representatives approved the proposed law unanimously. Now the measure awaits a vote by the Senate, where it has received bipartisan support at a time when the country is divided on almost every other issue.
The law would standarise the statute of limitations on claims for the return of art looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, allowing heirs six years to file in the US, once they became aware of the suspected looted object and its location. Statues of limitations on such claims currently vary from state to state.
The legislation has had some high-profile supporters, including the actress Helen Mirren, who testified before the US Senate Judiciary Committee in June. In the film Woman in Gold, Mirren played the collector Maria Altmann, the heir to an Austrian Jewish family that lost all of its property to the Nazis, including a painting by Gustav Klimt, Adele I. Altmann successfully sued in the US to recover the work from the Belvedere Museum in Vienna in 2006.
The collector Ronald Lauder, one of the bill’s most prominent supporters, now displays Adele I at the Neue Galerie in New York. Lauder calls objects looted during the Nazi years “the last prisoners of war”. On 1 December, Lauder wrote a blog post for The Hill, a publication read by Congressional members and staff, in which he asked: “Imagine if you walked into a museum and saw a painting that once hung in your grandparents’ home? How would you feel, especially if your grandparents had been murdered by the same government that took the painting? Is this justice?”
Lauder continued: “What makes this egregious theft of culture and heritage even worse is how governments, museums, auction houses and unscrupulous collectors quietly allowed it to continue.” Lauder was the chairman of MoMA’s board in 1997 and 1998, when the museum exhibited Portrait of Wally (1912) by Egon Schiele, a picture on loan from the Leopold Foundation in Vienna that was seized in 1939 from the Jewish art dealer Lea Bondi. Lauder at the time said nothing in support of the heirs, who eventually won a $19m settlement over the painting. “It’s a remarkable learning process that [Lauder] went through,” said the art investigator Willi Korte.
Randol Schoenberg, who represented Maria Altmann’ claim against the Belvedere, said from Los Angeles that “one of the purposes of federal legislation is to make sure that in the US, with its various states, you have the same law applying. In general, it’s a good idea, especially for artworks, which tend to travel.”
Yet Thomas Kline, president of the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, was wary of what he called “Holocaust-specific legislation”.
“We should have laws of general applicability,” he said. “In Cyprus, the Ottoman Turks killed civilians and they destroyed art. So it’s 1,500 people instead of 15 million, but they’re just as dead, and the deaths were out of disrespect for the culture and the people, as was the looting. And Armenians would tell you the same thing.”
Kline, who is Jewish, still supports the HEAR Act. “It’s a fact that relevant records were sealed, and it’s a fact that post-war restitution was a difficult process. Our laws don’t contemplate the situation where documents are destroyed and where society is torn apart for years, if not decades.”