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NY Museums Required to Label the Last Prisoners of World War II


The artworks stolen by the Nazis are the last prisoners of World War II.

 – Ronald Lauder, Woman in Gold

Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer was a wealthy sugar magnate in Vienna, Austria where his six Gustav Klimt paintings were housed. His wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was the subject of two of the paintings. On March 12, 1938, the Nazis invaded and claimed to annex Austria. Ferdinand, who was Jewish and had supported efforts to resist annexation, fled the country ahead of the Nazis, ultimately settling in Zurich. In his absence, the Nazis took over his home and seized his artworks, which included the Klimt paintings. Adele Bloch-Bauer I is one of them and ended up at the Austrian Gallery.

After a long-lasting legal battle over the ownership of the painting in the U.S. Supreme Court[1] and an arbitration in Austria[2], the painting was eventually returned to Maria Altmann, the niece and heir of Ferdinand who resided in California after fleeing from Austria. In a later private sale in 2006, Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder bought the painting for $135 million to display in his Neue Galerie, located at 5th Ave, New York.[3]

A careful visitor to Neue Galerie will probably find there is a sign acknowledging some of the historical facts mentioned above. This is because, on August 10, 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed into law a new requirement that museums with works of art which changed hands through theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale, or other involuntary means during the Nazi era in Europe to display a sign acknowledging such information.

As a matter of fact, New York state attested that the Nazis looted some 600,000 paintings from Jewish people during World War II, as part of the Third Reich’s crimes committed to eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture. Many eventually made their way to museums in New York, and museums displayed these stolen art pieces with no recognition of or transparency around their origins.[4] Introduced on January 28, 2021, and passed with a unanimous vote in New York State Assembly, this new legislation was part of a legislative package aimed to honor and support Holocaust survivors, of whom there are an estimated 40,000 in New York state. [5]

Incorporated into New York Education Law § 233-aa as the 15th subdivision, this new, one-sentence law provides: “Every museum which has on display any identifiable works of art known to have been created before nineteen hundred forty-five and which changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means in Europe during the Nazi era (nineteen hundred thirty-three–nineteen hundred forty-five) shall, to the extent practicable, place a placard or other signage acknowledging such information along with such display.” This article will discuss briefly a few highlights of this new legislation.

Viewed together with other provisions of the New York Education Law § 233-aa, you will find that “museums” are not just museums. Instead, they also include various kinds of similarly situated governmental entities or not-for-profit corporations. Under the 1st subdivision of § 233-aa, “museum” is defined as “any institution, including but not limited to museums, historical societies, zoological gardens, aquariums, botanical gardens, and arboreta, having collecting as a stated purpose in its charter, or owning or holding collections, or intending to own or hold collections, that is a governmental entity or not-for-profit corporation.”

Crucially, the law extends the acquisition means to include various involuntary means.

Previously, a similar information disclosure practice was encouraged by the Association of Art Museum Directors (“AAMD”) and the American Alliance of Museums (“AAM”). AAMD stated in Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era (1933-1945) that if a member museum should determine that a work of art in its collection was illegally confiscated during the Nazi/World War II era and not restituted, the museum should make such information public.[6] AAM has release guidelines on the “Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era.” It recommended that “if credible evidence of unlawful appropriation without subsequent restitution is discovered through research, the museum should take prudent and necessary steps to resolve the status of the object, in consultation with qualified legal counsel. Such steps should include making such information public and, if possible, notifying potential claimants.”[7]

One of the limitations of these guidelines is the terms “illegally confiscated” and “unlawful appropriation.” In fact, the scope of Nazi art taking was much broader than just “illegally confiscated” and “unlawful appropriation.” The new NY law covers art sold not necessarily under these illegal means, but through “other involuntary means” during the Nazi Era, including a number of scenarios like so-called “flight goods” that were not stolen outright, nor sold under duress, but left behind because of a flight in haste from persecution.[8]

A recent case, Zuckerman v. Metro. Museum Art[9] illustrates another situation that could plausibly be considered as “involuntary means.” Paul Friedrich Leffmann and Alice Leffmann were a wealthy German Jewish couple who owned The Actor, a painting by Pablo Picasso. When the Nuremberg Law came into effect, the couple was forced to sell their homes and business in consideration of nominal compensation. Dispossessed of most of their assets, they fled Nazi Germany for Italy in 1937. However, Italy turned out not a safe destination because Jews risked arrest and faced possible deportation and death due to the spread of anti-Semitism in Italy. With no income source, the couple lived as refugees, were unable to work, and had no choice but to sell whatever assets they had into cash to finance their move from Italy to Switzerland. In 1938, the couple, in fear of their liberty and life, had to sell The Actor to a pair of notorious art dealers (the U.S. State of Department later identified one of them as a trafficker in Nazi-looted art) at the very price at which they had told the same dealers they would not consider in a prior negotiation. The painting was sold twice more before being donated in 1952 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the “Met”). [10] Although Laurel Zuckerman, the Leffmann’s great grandniece who claimed restitution, failed to recover the painting, she will probably see the Met put a placard acknowledging such information because the means through which the art dealers acquired The Actor could be considered as “involuntary” given the threatening environment, the couple’s limited financial resources and the low price that they initially would not agree to.

However, the new law is silent on some important details of the information disclosure requirement.

Around 10 years ago, AAM formulated Recommended Procedures for Providing Information to the Public about Objects Transferred in Europe during the Nazi Era (“Recommended Procedures”). [11] It identified 20 categories of information about covered objects that museums should make available to the public, including artist/maker, date of work and acquisition, and provenance. It is merely a start, but not enough as it does not address some more practical issues such as how museums can best carry out this new law, what should curators be saying, where should the information go exactly, and how can museums present it in such a way that visitors read it and understand what the issues are involved because these are complex issues.[12]

Obviously, this New York’s recent legislation only covers European artwork that was taken during the Nazi era, but in recent years, there have been many conversations about non-European pieces of art that were illegally taken from countries in Asia and Africa to the U.S. Perhaps the next step is for legislators to consider requiring museums to label these “prisoners” as well.

*Zach Dai is a law clerk in the firm’s Century City office.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/17/arts/austrian-panel-backs-return-of-klimt-works.html

[3] https://www.neuegalerie.org/content/adele-bloch-bauer-i

[4] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/08/15/nazi-looted-art-new-york-museums-placard-law

[5] https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2021/S117

[6]https://aamd.org/sites/default/files/document/Report%20on%20the%20Spoliation%20of%20Nazi%20Era%20Art.pdf

[7] https://www.aam-us.org/programs/ethics-standards-and-professional-practices/unlawful-appropriation-of-objects-during-the-nazi-era/

[8] https://blog.sullivanlaw.com/artlawreport/2015/08/24/between-fairness-and-justice-for-successors-and-possessors-an-upcoming-conference-at-the-oskar-reinhart-museum-in-winterthur/

[9] 928 F.3d 186 (2d Cir. 2019)

[10] 64 year later, Laurel Zuckerman, the Leffmann’s great grandniece, claimed that her ancestors sold the painting under duress, therefore voiding the transaction. Finding that Zuckerman had failed to adequately plead duress, and also that Zuckerman’s claims were time barred under the New York statute of limitations and the equitable doctrine of laches, the trial court dismissed the case. (See Zuckerman v. Metro. Museum of Art, 307 F. Supp. 3d 304.) Zuckerman appealed. Without mentioning anything about the duress on the merits, the 2nd Circuit Appeal court affirmed the trial court decision merely relying on doctrine of laches.

[11] https://www.aam-us.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/nepip-recommended-procedures.pdf

[12] https://www.npr.org/2022/08/21/1118669882/new-york-art-museums-must-now-disclose-if-a-piece-was-stolen-by-nazis



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