Poland Renews Efforts to Extradite Art Dealer Alexander Khochinsky, Whose 2018 Lawsuit Seeks Damages for Poland’s Previous Retaliation for his WW II Restitution Claims

Art Law Report 26 February 2019
By Nicholas O'Donnell

Alexander Khochinsky, the son of a Polish Jew who fled her home just steps ahead of the German invasion in 1941, was detained at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport yesterday.  The current detention parallels Poland’s previous failed attempts to extradite Khochinsky from the United States in 2015, a request that was dismissed and which led to his pending lawsuit for that retaliatory extradition attempt.  Khochinsky, an art dealer, reached out to Poland about a painting, Girl with Dove, that he had inherited from his parents that looked similar to one that Poland was seeking, and asked to open a dialogue about what had happened to his mother’s home.  In response, Poland charged him with a crime and asked the United States to extradite him for prosecution.  The U.S. District Court in Manhattan dismissed the request for extradition in 2015, but by then Khochinsky had suffered months of detention and the destruction of his business.  Khochinsky—an American citizen—was detained just before boarding his flight to New York on Monday and informed that there was an Interpol or European request for his extradition made by Poland.

Khochinsky filed suit against Poland in June of last year seeking compensation for the damage that the bad-faith extradition effort in 2015 caused him, and promptly delivered the Summons and Complaint to Poland pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents.  Since then, despite compliance with the Hague Convention, Poland has refused to acknowledge service to delay the lawsuit.  Khochinsky’s legal team recently pressed Poland to certify service of the Complaint. 

Sullivan & Worcester LLP partner Nicholas M. O’Donnell, representing Khochinsky, said, “Mr. Khochinsky has traveled to Europe many times since Poland’s failed attempt in the United States, all without incident.  The timing of the latest effort seems unlikely to be a coincidence.”  Khochinsky has been released from custody but may not leave France pending a further court hearing.  French attorney Jean-Jacques Neuer, who represents Khochinsky with respect to the extradition attempt in Paris, added “We were pleased that Mr. Khochinsky has no longer been detained and will continue to defend his rights.” 


The Initial Extradition Effort

Khochinsky’s mother, Maria, was a Polish Jew born in 1922. Her family owned land and a house in the Polish town of Przemysl, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939 as part of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  Maria happened to be visiting her mother for the Sabbath just a few miles to the east when Germany initiated the Eastern Front of World War II on June 22, 1941.  This small head start on the German invasion spared her from the Holocaust—more than 90% of Przemysl’s Jews were murdered by the time the city was retaken by the Red Army in 1944.  She settled in the USSR, where Khochinsky grew up in Leningrad. 

In 2010, Khochinsky learned that a painting he had inherited from his father seemed to match the description of a painting that had reportedly gone missing from a Polish museum during World War II. Khochinsky hoped that mutual desires for restitution would make Poland more willing to consider paying his family for the land seized in Przemysl. He contacted Poland about both his family’s land and the painting.

Poland reacted vengefully to Khochinsky’s request for compensation. It invented false charges that Khochinsky had knowingly received stolen goods, and it sought to have him extradited from his home in the United States.  The extradition proceeding caused intense hardship for Khochinsky, his wife, and their children. The family’s travel documents were confiscated, and Khochinsky was placed on house arrest starting in January, 2013, which lasted for more than five months. This detention left him completely unable to attend to his business as an art dealer and thus left his family without an income.

This gambit failed and Poland’s request was dismissed.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York found that Khochinsky was not extraditable because there was not even probable cause to believe that he had committed the crime with which he was charged because his “behavior is inconsistent with someone who knows his property is sought by a foreign sovereign.”

The damage was done, however.  For a professional whose business depended upon partners, clients, exhibitions, museum, and art fairs in Europe and Russia, this imprisonment was utterly devastating. Khochinsky’s livelihood was all but destroyed.

The Lawsuit and Recent Harassment

Khochinsky filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on June 27, 2018 seeking declaratory relief and damages.  Khochinsky’s counsel had the Complaint and the other commencement documents translated and supporting documents prepared; and oversaw the transmission of the service package to the Polish Central Authority in July 2018.  In September, that initial attempt was refused by the Polish Ministry of Justice in a tactical effort to delay the case.

Khochinsky’s attorneys addressed the ministry’s stated concerns and resubmitted the service package.  The Polish Central Authority in Poland for the recipient of Hague Convention service received the fully-compliant service package (again) on October 8, 2018.

Under instruction by the District Court to provide an update, Khochinsky’s team again reached out to Poland earlier late last month and advised that he would soon move for entry of default.  Only then was Khochinsky detained during his recent visit to France, after many trips to Europe in recent years without incident.
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