15 June 2016

S. 2763: Restitution kabuki

an opinionated piece by Marc Masurovsky

Note: The title was inspired by a close friend who is intimately involved in art restitution matters.

The authors of Senate Bill 2763, the “Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act” (HEAR Act), have as a major sponsor Republican Senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Another Republican co-sponsor is Senator Cornyn. Neither of them has been known to utter a word or express a single public thought about Holocaust claimants and/or about Nazi looted art. Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who is no friend of art restitution advocates, is a co-sponsor of S.2763 with Senator Blumenthal from Connecticut.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 7, 2016, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing regarding Senate Bill 2763. The witnesses included Ron Lauder speaking on behalf of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), Monica Dugot of Christie’s, Agnes Peresztegi of the Commission for Art Recovery, Dame Helen Mirren, actress noted for her role as Maria Altmann in “The Woman in Gold”, and Simon Goodman, one of the heirs to the collection and property of the late Friedrich Gutmann.

Let’s deconstruct the title of the proposed bill:

Expropriated Art: is “expropriated” a legal term or just an evocative word to denote forcible removal without the owner’s consent? It might have been selected so that an acronym could be used to publicize the bill—in this case, HEAR. What if we had used displaced or misappropriated as substitutes for “expropriated”? Then we would get HDAR or HMAR. Not very elegant.

Does this proposed legislation cover all acts of illegal misappropriation of Jewish-owned cultural assets between 1933 and 1945? Or does the proposed legislation only cover those instances where a “public agency”, writ large, orders the “taking” of private property from Jews? Depending on how you answer these questions, the field of objects covered by this proposed legislation could change rapidly.

Recovery: it’s a word like any other, but does it actually mean “restitution” or simply the act of “recovering”? Merriam-Webster defines “recovery” as “the return of something that has been lost, stolen, etc.” What would have occurred if the Act had been called the “Holocaust Expropriated Art Restitution Act”? It would have been far more specific and more claimant-friendly. Then, the framers of the act could not be accused of playing footsy with the art market by keeping the wording ambiguous, because “recovery” is an ambiguous term, much as recovering from addiction leaves room for a relapse. Why ambiguous? Well, US troops “recovered” looted art throughout "liberated" Germany and Austria. Did it mean that it was “restituted”? No, it simply meant that it had to be shipped to countries where local officials would then “restitute” the objects to their rightful owners, or not.

Why the ambiguity? Is S. 2763 really a hat tip to the art market, a flirty wink to indicate that, no worries, your interests will be taken into account when this law finally passes?  In other words, “recovery” might also mean “just and fair” which usually means “financial settlement” where the seller or current possessor of the claimed looted item gets to hang on to the prized ownership title to the looted object.

“Recovery” is another way of saying that the art market continues to hold tremendous sway on how restitution works for Holocaust-era claimants.

At the end of the day, so the expression goes, it is always a business decision how a looted object gets "returned” and “recovered.”

Are claimants’ rights genuinely protected by S. 2763? Or is this bill a subversive sop to the art market and a gift to the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM)? These two groups have fought for years to put an end to the claims process, callously indifferent and disdainful about how cultural objects are stolen, misappropriated, expropriated, displaced, whatever the word is to connote illegality.

As currently drafted, S. 2763 might be nothing more than a final attempt to address art restitution in the United States, offering the art market the equivalent of a social peace during a six-year period of claims hopefully unimpeded by statutes of limitations and laches (assuming that the final version of S 2763 keeps out laches, no guarantees given!). Claimants would presumably get a « fair day in court » where their claims may be assessed solely on their merits, again within a six year framework or less, depending on when the claimed item had been located and identified and the evidence garnered to back the claim.

S. 2763 is looking more and more like a thinly disguised message to claimants,.a last opportunity to file for restitution assuming that they know where their object is and they have the proper documentation to support their claim. If not, how will they obtain the evidence in the time allotted to them? How will claimants afford a court action against a current possessor especially if it is a museum or a billionaire collector with access to a well-supplied war chest ?

S. 2763 stacks the cards against claimants, however which way you look at it. Even if they do manage to garner the documentation, claimants will not be able to afford the hefty litigation fees associated with a proceeding to obtain restitution.

It is not possible to endorse S.2763 if a mechanism is not explicitly created which ensures that claimants will be supported in their attempt to recover their lost property. The Federal government should subsidize this commitment for at least ten years to ensure that claims are properly addressed and have a fair chance of being heard, by minimizing research and legal costs to claimants.

S. 2763 favors wealthy claimants with access to significant means to support research into their claims and legal action to recover identified objects which sit either in public or private collections. It is clearly not designed to help the vast majority of claimants, who lost cultural assets that are not museum-worthy. It provides succor to the very few, those who are familiar with the claims process and are able to demand the return of high-end items which their lawyers are willing to recover for them at rates the average claimant cannot possibly afford.

The claims process has always been skewed towards those who have lost cultural assets considered of great value in today’s market and towards whom gravitate most lawyers as well as market players.