California Lawmakers Approve Bill on Stolen Art Claims

New York Times 1 September 2010
By Kate Taylor

California lawmakers gave final approval Monday night to a bill that would extend the time period in which people can sue museums to try to recover what they believe are stolen works of art. A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he had not decided whether to sign the bill, which would give people six years to file a claim, instead of the current three.

The legislation grew out of cases in which time became a factor in litigation involving art looted by the Nazis. California once had a law that set no time limit on such claims but it was struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year. Without that law, courts have generally held that the statute of limitations governing stolen art begins when the claimant discovers the whereabouts of the work, or should have discovered it with reasonable diligence (because the work, for example, was posted on a museum’s Web site or featured in an exhibition).

Under the new legislation, which governs claims against museums, galleries and auction houses, plaintiffs are freed from any reasonable diligence provision and the clock does not start until plaintiffs have gathered enough information to evaluate whether they have valid claims.

The California Association of Museums has described the bill as “unnecessary, unfair, unconstitutional, and disruptive” of property rights in a letter to a state assemblyman, Mike Feuer, one of the bill’s sponsors. The association said it believed the bill was intended to affect the results in two pending lawsuits, including one by a California man against a Madrid museum over ownership of a painting by Camille Pissarro, which he says the Nazis forced his grandmother to sell for a pittance in 1939.
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