Should countries set a deadline for restitution claims brought by descendants of Holocaust victims whose art was looted by the Nazis? Klaus Albrecht Schröder, director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, says yes. “The international community should decide on a sensible time frame of 20 or 30 years from now,” he argued recently in an interview with The Art Newspaper.
While Austria doesn’t currently have a statute of limitations for Nazi-looted art, some other countries already do. In Germany, descendants of Nazi looting victims haven’t been able to seek restitution in court since 1975 (though the government is now considering an amendment that would remove that limit). In the United States, different states have different statutes; New York requires heirs to bring a suit to court within three years of asking an institution to return a work and receiving a refusal.
Schröder’s call comes at a time when Nazi-looted art within his country is receiving an unprecedented wave of popular attention. “Woman in Gold” is now alerting movie goers to the story of Maria Altmann, who, in 2000, sued Austria in a US court for possession of five Gustav Klimt paintings seized from her family by the Nazis. Similarly, the debacle surrounding German art collector Cornelius Gurlitt has also made headlines following the discovery of a massive stash of Nazi-looted art in his Munich apartment in 2012; another trove was found in his Salzburg apartment less than a year ago.
Claims like Altmann’s have grown more frequent since 1998, when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Department of State hosted the Washington Conference, an international summit that centered on “Holocaust-era assets.” At the meeting, 44 nations agreed to the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. The document stated that “steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution” for the heirs of Holocaust victims whose art was stolen by the Nazis. Signers agreed to examine the provenance of all art in public collections and return any Nazi-looted goods to their rightful owners. Some countries (including Austria, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands) went a step further and set up national commissions to act as arbitrators in such cases.
Austria, the only country to actually pass a law obligating restitution, has seen the most success, with 50,000 objects having been given back since the war. But in countries without such laws, the agreement was just that — an agreement — and actually returning Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners has proven difficult. In the US, cases can languish in court for years if they’re brought at all. In New York, the family of painter George Grosz has long fought, to no avail, for the return of two oil paintings held by the Museum of Modern Art; in 2011, the United States Supreme Court refused to review the case because the three-year statute of limitations on stolen art had expired.
With such hurdles still existing in the international community, suggestions like Schröder’s will undoubtedly seem ill-timed. Before putting out a last call for restitution claims, shouldn’t we ensure that heirs seeking the return of looted art are actually getting justice? And even in Austria, work remains to be done, as Daniel Spera, director of Vienna’s Jewish Museum, told The Art Newspaper. “In our country the debate on restitution started very recently, too recently, and litigations have been strung out far too much. The discussion should not be about time limits but rather on how provenance research can be carried out as efficiently and rapidly as possible.”
It might be that some fear the focus on Nazi-looted art could also draw more attention to objects in museum collections taken during other wars, conflicts, or more imperialistic eras (Britain’s six-year statute of limitations has been one reason trumpeted for keeping the Parthenon Marbles in the country). As Schröder himself clearly states, “If we don’t set a time limit of around 100 years after the end of the Second World War, then we should ask ourselves why claims regarding crimes committed during the First World War should not still be valid; why we don’t argue anymore about the consequences of the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian war, and why we don’t claim restitution of works of art that have been stolen during previous wars?”