Restoring justice through art recovery

After waiting in line outside the Neue Galerie in New York six years ago to see the Gustav Klimt “Woman in Gold” painting, I remember hoping that the wait would be worth it. Of course it was; the painting was spectacular. I also remember thinking that those who are responsible for looting works of art and artifacts are playing a vicious and demented game of Hide and Seek. Hide the art; let those to whom the art really belongs seek and seek and seek.

The looting of art before, during, and after World War II became a kind of sport for the Nazi regime.

There is a saying that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” The saying is neither legally correct nor dispositive. Possession of an object may give one an advantage over another briefly. However, in the case of looted art works, the advantage has sometimes lasted years.

Restoring lost works of art to rightful heirs and countries is difficult to achieve but absolutely necessary in order to restore family dignity, ownership rights, and cultural identity. Determining the provenance or history of a piece of art or artifact is critical to establishing whether or not the work is authentic. Art historians are adept at checking sale catalogs, purchase documents, brush strokes, backs of paintings and other sources to validate works of art.

Some of my favorite movies deal with the issues of art looting and recovery: “The Art Dealer”; “The Last Vermeer”; “Monuments Men”; and “Woman in Gold”.

Strangely, more than 80 years since the end of World War II, lawsuits are still being brought to restore works of art to heirs of the original owners. On May 10 of this year, a painting by Camille Pissarro became the subject of a case filed in federal court in Atlanta, Georgia by heirs of Margaret and Ludwig Kainer. According to the claim, the painting of a harbor was taken from the Kainers in Germany by the Nazis and eventually found its way into the Horowitz Family Foundation in Atlanta, where it was displayed at the High Museum of Art for three months in late 2014 and early 2015. No one will now confirm the current whereabouts of the painting. Perhaps the lawsuit will accelerate finding the location and history of the Pisarro.

In late July of this year, authorities in Brooklyn, New York seized World War II era Jewish funeral scrolls, manuscripts and other records that were taken from Jewish communities in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia. These items had been offered for sale by a Brooklyn auction house until the intervention of the U.S. Attorney and the Department of Homeland Security. According the U.S. Attorney: “Absent any provenance or documentation of conveyance from any survivors of those communities, there is no legitimate means by which the manuscripts and scrolls could have been imported into the United States.” In addition, an affidavit by an agent from DHS stated: “(The documents) represent invaluable cultural religious artifacts that should be promptly returned to the survivors of their original Jewish communities.” Time will tell.

In 1933, Curt Glaser, director of the Berlin State Art Library, was removed from his position because he was Jewish. He sold his extensive art collection and moved to New York. Heirs claim that the art sale was coerced. Over the years, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland agreed and returned many of the art works. Currently, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston disagree and have refused to make restitution. The situation has been referred to as “restitution roulette.”

“To delay justice is injustice,” according to William Penn, the Quaker, who founded the Province of Pennsylvania as a refuge for victims of religious intolerance in England. He was right in 1693 when he wrote the book in which the quotation appears, and his philosophy is right today.

“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l’maan tichyeh” – Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live.


Audrey Brooks is an Emeritus Judicial Member, State Bar of Wisconsin, lifelong volunteer, and current Tucson Hebrew Academy Board Trustee.