We must return Nazi-looted art: The Supreme Court should hear Laurel Zuckerman’s case

New York Daily News 28 February 2020
By Jerrold Nadler and Bob Goodlatte

It is unusual for every Democrat and every Republican in Congress to completely agree. But when it came to providing restitution for Holocaust survivors and their families, we did.

In 2016, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (the HEAR Act) passed both the Senate and the House unanimously. This bipartisan legislation provides Holocaust survivors and their heirs with a legal remedy for the largest loss of artwork in human history: the displacement of artwork from Jewish families in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s as a result of Nazi and fascist persecution. The legislation fulfills commitments that Congress made to Holocaust survivors and their families, some of whom are, or were, constituents.

After World War II, the psychological trauma of the Holocaust often prevented survivors from pursuing their lost artwork. In addition, these survivors were often destitute, lacking the financial resources to pursue claims. On top of these challenges, Holocaust survivors and their heirs faced another obstacle to their claims: the passage of time.

Courts were repeatedly dismissing cases brought by Holocaust survivors and their heirs as untimely, based on statute-of-limitations defenses. At least one court ruled that the law required Holocaust survivors and their heirs to have brought their claims before World War II even ended — at a time when many of the survivors were still imprisoned in Nazi death camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Every single member of Congress agreed that this was an injustice of the worst kind. To ensure that courts would not dismiss claims by Holocaust survivors and their families as being brought too late, the HEAR Act created a temporary window in which claims could be brought and decided on their merits. Indeed, the HEAR Act contains a clear directive that its claims should be decided “on the facts and merits of the claims.”

Unfortunately, however, a federal appeals court has interpreted the HEAR Act in a way that upends its fundamental purpose. Last Friday, we joined a group of current and former members of Congress in filing an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

The case was brought by Laurel Zuckerman. Her great-great-aunt and uncle, German Jews, sold a painting under duress in the late 1930s to fund their escape from the Nazis and from Fascist Italy. That painting, Pablo Picasso’s masterwork, “The Actor,” is now on display in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The HEAR Act was intended to allow Zuckerman to pursue her claims and have them decided on the merits. Sadly, however, that is not what happened.

The federal appeals court in Zuckerman’s case ruled that while it was “understandable” that her family did not bring a claim to recover their artwork “during the course of World War II and even, perhaps, for a few years thereafter,” their 2010 demand for their painting was too late. For that reason, the court dismissed Zuckerman’s case. Even though her claims were covered by the HEAR Act, the court still ruled that the “delay was unreasonable.”

In the friend-of-the-court brief filed last week, we explain that the federal appeals court’s ruling conflicts with the fundamental purpose of the HEAR Act we wrote. Our brief describes how that ruling, if not reversed, would eviscerate the law’s protections, discouraging the very claims that the Act meant to encourage.

We are hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will take Zuckerman’s case and interpret the HEAR Act as Congress intended: to provide meaningful restitution to Holocaust survivors and their families. Republicans and Democrats agree that justice demands it.

Nadler, a Democrat from New York and current member of Congress, and Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia and former member of Congress, were the lead sponsors of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016.

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