Report: US museums increasingly evading restitution of Nazi-looted art through legal tactics

AP 25 June 2015
By Ula Ilnytzky

NEW YORK — U.S. museums are increasingly evading the restitution of Nazi-looted art by using legal tactics to avoid resolving the cases on their merits, according to a report by the World Jewish Restitution Organization released Thursday.

The tactic is a trend that has grown in recent years, it said.

"American museums have an obligation to ensure that claimants get a fair chance to get a hearing on their case," said Gideon Taylor, chair of WJRO operations. "That increasingly is not happening in U.S. museums."

The technical defense approach by museums also likely is a deterrent to claimants coming forward because they face an expensive and protracted legal struggle, according to the report.

It cites five museum cases in which the courts sided with the institutions, which won their cases resorting to legal technicalities such as statute of limitations. A sixth case involving a disputed Camille Pissarro painting donated to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma in 2000 is pending.

The Oklahoma museum said the family who donated the artwork to the museum "undisputedly purchased the painting in good faith from a reputable art dealer, with legitimate and verified title."

"We continue to hope for a resolution that will be fair to all parties," it added.

The report also shows that other countries have taken a different approach to settling claims of stolen Nazi-era art, establishing tribunals or special venues where these issues can be heard based on the merits, not on technical grounds.

"We're not saying every claimant is right and that every claim is a valid claim. We're saying let the claim be heard by a neutral body," Taylor said. "If the museums are confident in their interpretation of the facts, then they should be confident to let the court adjudicate whether that's right or not."

Among its recommendations, the report says the American Alliance of Museums should ensure museums comply with its guidelines "by abstaining from blocking claims on technical grounds." Museums that fail to do so should be subject to a review of their accreditation with the AAM, it says. It also recommends legislation to extend statutes of limitations for Holocaust-era restitution claims.

The AAM said it would comment on the report later Thursday.
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