Attorney Don Burris is widely known for pursuing works of art belonging to Jewish families that were looted by Nazis during World War II. One of his law firm’s cases, in fact, inspired the recent film “Woman In Gold,” based on a pivotal case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Burris spoke in the Twin Cities last week for the Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at Beth Jacob Congregation. The issue of cultural appropriation is as alive today as it was 70 years ago, he said.
“This is not a dead subject,” said Burris, based in Los Angeles. “There is a universality to it.”
Robbing the cultural artifacts of a people is an attempt to strip their identity and history, he said. Other examples include the theft of antiquities in Iraq and artifacts from native peoples, he said.
Nazis stole thousands of art works that once hung in the living rooms of Jewish families and private art collections. The sheer volume of the works they looted has made the return of these objects an emotional topic for decades.
Their estimated value was $2 billion in 1945, and $20 billion today, said Burris.
And the stash is still being recovered. In 2012, German police discovered more than 1,200 paintings, prints and drawings hidden in a Munich apartment belonging to the elderly son of a Nazi-era art dealer. “They [the Nazis] wanted no living memorial to a dead people’s race,” Burris said.
Burris’ career, which spans nearly four decades, included a stint in 1973 as special counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, a professor at Georgetown Law Center and an attorney in private practice.
For the past dozen years, he has carved a niche career working to recover stolen artwork and other Jewish assets. He is among a small cadre of attorneys nationally.
Burris was co-counsel — with his law partner Randol Schoenberg — on the Supreme Court case Altmann v. Republic of Austria, featured in the 2015 film starting Helen Mirren, “Woman in Gold.”
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The court’s action in 2004 ultimately forced the Austrian government to return paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt that had been seized from the family of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee. Altmann died in 2011.
It was a victory not just for the plaintiff.
“These are the things that made us who we are,” said Susie Greenberg, a program associate at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, which sponsored Burris’ visit.
The stolen art work has turned up in museums and private collections around the globe, and across decades. In 2008, for example, the Minneapolis Institute of Art returned a $2.8 million painting by artist Fernand Leger to the French heirs of its Jewish owner.
Burris said he receives calls regularly from individuals hoping for help to obtain family art works. He currently has about a dozen cases, including one involving artifacts from India.
Burris said he continues to speak about the issue across the country, both for Jewish groups and for lawyers. While in the Twin Cities, he packed in an informal breakfast meeting with judges and attorneys, said Greenberg, plus a noon discussion with another group of attorneys, before heading to the Holocaust memorial service that evening.
The title of his speech that night was “Triumph over Tragedy,” which he said is what the work of preserving Jewish identity and culture is all about.