Nazi-Era Claim Rejected in Court

Artinfo 8 July 2009

The U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana has decided against a claim for a work alleged to have been looted by Nazis. The court found that the Oskar Kokoschka painting Portrait of a Youth (Hans Reichel) (1910) rightfully belongs to Sarah Blodgett Dunbar, whose mother, Sarah Blodgett Platt, purchased it from Galerie St. Etienne in New York in 1946.

The claimant, Raimund Reichel, alleged that the work had been confiscated by Nazis in Vienna in 1939, when then-owner Oskar Reichel transferred ownership of it to fellow Jewish dealer Otto Kallir, Galerie St. Etienne's owner. He claimed that Kallir and thus Platt failed to obtain proper title to the work because of the wartime transfer.

Working for Dunbar, the international law firm Nixon Peabody’s Art and Cultural Institutions Practice argued that the Reichel family was paid for the work and that they never made any claims to it, although they did seek the restitution of other property after World War II.

Following Louisiana's Civil Code provisions, the court held that even if the work had been stolen or sold under duress during WWII, Ms. Dunbar acquired clear legal title because of her open and continuous possession of the painting for more than ten years.

[ARIS Commentary:  Louisiana is unique among U.S. jurisdictions in its adoption of a civil code containing a prescriptive ownership period similar to European jurisdictions such as France, Germany and Switzerland in which a party may acquire clear legal title to stolen art if the party has maintained unchallenged possession of the work for a certain period of time (even if the transferor did not have clear legal title).  The general rule in other United States jurisdictions is that a thief cannot obtain clear legal title to stolen art and for this reason good faith purchasers and other downstream parties cannot obtain clear legal title to the work regardless of how long these parties have possessed the artwork.]
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