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Potential changes to state law could affect claims relating to Armenian massacres

Californian law may make restitution harder

Sacramento

Laws passed by the California state legislature to make it easier to file restitution claims are being challenged as unconstitutional and, in some cases, struck down. This may affect the latest restitution claim relating to the Armenian massacres (1915-18 and 1920-23), which was filed in California’s federal court in February against Turkey and its central bank.

The claim was filed by Norman Manookian, who says that his grandfather, Garouj Karamanoukian, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, was killed along with other family members between 1914 and 1918, and that his property was later expropriated by Turkey. Manookian is also seeking damages for a mansion within the Turkish border that the country has turned into an ethnographic museum.

It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of deportations and executions ordered by the Ottoman Empire. Armenians and many others regard these actions as genocide, although the present-day Turkish government rejects this description.

California is home to the largest Armenian population in America, numbering around half a million people. Beginning in the 1990s, the state passed laws making it easier to file restitution claims. For example, a 2002 law made it easier to file claims against museums and galleries by extending the statute of limitations to 31 December 2010.

The success of some recent Holocaust-related restitution claims had led experts to anticipate similar outcomes in Armenian cases, and a rise in the number of these claims. “With the legal precedent established by the successes of the Holocaust restitution litigation in the US, the legal landscape for filing a suit… has never been more favourable,” said Michael Bazyler, a professor at Chapman University School of Law, speaking on a panel at the Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, in 2011.

Now, though, “the litigation environment has changed”, says Igor Timofeyev, a lawyer with the law firm Paul Hastings. The future partly hinges on a case in which the estate of Claude Cassirer, the heir of a Holocaust victim, is seeking a Pissarro painting from Spain. Spain is arguing in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the law extending the statute of limitations for certain restitution claims should be struck down as unconstitutional. Spain says that, because restitution claims necessarily involve war, the law passed by California violates the federal government’s exclusive right under the US Constitution to conduct foreign policy. If Spain succeeds and the statute is struck down, a high-profile Armenian restitution case against the J. Paul Getty Museum will also fail, experts say (see box).

They also note that, unlike the situation with Holocaust-era claims, the US government has not become involved in seeking restitution for victims of the Armenian massacres. Timofeyev has appealed to the US Supreme Court in a case he is handling against insurance companies on behalf of Armenian descendants. He says that, although the US government “has been quite involved [in Holocaust-era claims]… there’s no similar international mechanism for Armenia. The US government… hasn’t made a similar effort.” Bazyler says: “With Armenia, there’s always a connection to Turkey, which is an important US ally.”

Nonetheless, Bazyler predicts that international museums will eventually return Armenian art expropriated during the massacres, as is increasingly happening with Holocaust-era art. “Most of it is religious art owned by churches, so, morally, it is more compelling,” he says.

BOX

Church v Getty: Spain could decide case

Should Spain succeed in arguing that California’s extension of the statute of limitations is invalid, the case brought against the J. Paul Getty Museum by the Armenian Apostolic Church will fail, says Lee Boyd, the church’s lawyer.

The church brought a case against the museum in 2010, seeking seven manuscript pages from the 13th-century Zeyt’un Gospels, which it claims were looted before the Getty bought them. The museum considers these among the masterpieces in its collection, says its senior curator of manuscripts, Elizabeth Morrison. The church defeated the museum’s motion to dismiss the case in 2011, but the case is on hold until the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether the law extending the statute of limitations is valid in the restitution case against Spain. If it is not, the case would be dismissed.

Meanwhile, the Getty has begun to forge a relationship with the Matenadaran, the Armenian museum that holds the rest of the Zeyt’un Gospels. Last year, Morrison and the Getty’s general counsel, Stephen Clark, travelled to Armenia, where they visited the museum but did not discuss the dispute, Morrison says. Boyd is cynical about the new relationship with the Matenadaran, dismissing it as mere “public relations”. Morrison says this is “far from the truth… we have always sought to have good relations with institutions worldwide”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Restitution to get harder in California?'