November 18, 2004
Panel ponders legalities of reclaiming art
Nazi-plundered works are the focus of ever more court cases. Lawyers discuss
By Mike Boehm, Times Staff Writer
They are like a vast shelf of sad, unfinished
stories still awaiting a
redemptive ending: artworks looted by the Nazis during World War II, now
being sought by aged owners who escaped or survived the Holocaust, or by a
new generation of heirs who are carrying on _ or initiating _ the quest for
what was lost.
But the compelling dramas of those searches
often won't play out to a
conclusion without an exhausting slog through an intricate tangle of arcane
and conflicting law. That was part of the message in a panel discussion
Tuesday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on "Law, Justice and the
Recovery of Holocaust Art."
_Still, the four legal experts said, the increasing availability of
databases and newly unveiled records in the former Soviet bloc are
propelling more searches.
Though sometimes abstruse, the discussion
also was fired by the allure of
great art _ disputed paintings by Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse
and Gustave Courbet were projected at times behind the Bing Theater dais _
and by the unceasing fascination of horrific history. There, on the screen,
was Adolf Hitler, taking one of his weekly browses through a Parisian
storehouse of looted canvases.
But the heart of the matter for the four
lawyers _ E. Randol Schoenberg,
Simon J. Frankel, Steven E. Thomas and Thaddeus J. Stauber _ was an analysis
of the legal chutes and ladders that face people trying to claim art lost in
For example: Can the seeker of lost art fight
for it on U.S. legal turf,
where stolen goods are stolen goods and must be returned to the rightful
owners even if innocently acquired many years after the original theft?
Or will European law come into play, where
owners of looted art works may
need only prove that they were acquired in good faith, their Nazi past
Thomas emphasized that the growing wealth of
information that is helping
victims of Nazi art theft trace their losses also is available to those who
have doubts about the legitimacy of what they own _ and that there are moral
and legal reasons to end any uncertainty.
The number of claims today "is probably
in the hundreds. You'll see more and
more," he said after the discussion, sponsored by the Beverly Hills Bar
Assn.'s Committee for the Arts. Most of those are being settled without
going to court, Thomas said.
He thinks private collectors would be well
advised to follow what U.S.
museums have done since 1998, researching ownership histories to make sure
looting is not an issue.
Stauber, a former LACMA counsel who has
represented museums in
looting-related cases, says he knows of 15 claims brought against U.S.
museums. The museums' policy, he says, is to restore works to rightful
owners when proof of a Nazi past becomes clear.
Schoenberg said in an interview that he has
handled more than a dozen claims
since 1998, when he embarked on the first of two high-profile cases, both
still unresolved, involving six Klimt paintings held by a government-owned
museum in Austria and a Picasso hanging in the apartment of a Chicago
"These million-dollar paintings are the
only ones that make it worth the
effort, that make it economical to spend years searching, digging up
documents and in some cases litigating," he said. "But sometimes you find a
lesser painting and the [owners] are more willing to give it up."
But, as Frankel told the audience of about
100, what's most involving are
the historical stakes and the family stories.
"In a lot of respects the law is not
that interesting in these cases," he
"For me, what's compelling are the very
moving and often tragic facts."