Lawyer teaches natives how to reclaim looted art

Gustav Klimt's painting of 'Adele Bloch-Bauer'
Gustav Klimt's painting of 'Adele Bloch-Bauer'

The lessons the Jewish community has learned in reclaiming priceless art that was looted by the Nazis are being passed on to another group of people seeking to reclaim stolen sacred goods: Ontario’s First Nations.

At a Nov. 4 conference organized by the Chiefs of Ontario on protecting and repatriating sacred sites and items, the lawyer – whose California firm has reclaimed several works of Nazi-looted art, including the paintings featured in the recent movie Woman in Gold – described his most significant victories and some cases that are still tied up in litigation.

Addressing the conference, which included archeologists, curators and lawyers as well as community members, Donald Burris outlined the similarities in their situations.

“Just as the speakers have been highlighting the issue of cultural repatriation and reconciliation, that is similar to what we work with. We’re dealing with families that have lost many relatives, who’ve had to rebuild lives and in some ways have had to get back a vestige of what they’ve lost, “ he said. “In the American experience, we didn’t have respect for our own First Nations. In the Jewish experience [the Holocaust]… this was an absolute policy to destroy, destroy the culture of the Jewish People.”

Burris described his firm’s successful, but protracted fight in the Woman in Gold case, which included an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court to reclaim five paintings by Gustav Klimt that were being held in the Austrian national art gallery.

In another instance, he described how his case was helped when a district attorney also filed suit for a stolen painting. The attorney, a Japanese-American who had been interned during World War II, said he became involved in the case to uphold a promise to his parents to fight injustices related to the era, Burris said.

Burris, who usually speaks to Jewish groups and was in Toronto last month to speak at a fundraiser for ORT Toronto, said in an interview that he hoped to leave the aboriginal group with a message that perseverance, creativity and some luck can lead to a successful resolution.

“Maybe they were a little down… I was hoping they would hear some of the positive stories and they could be applied to the issues they have to deal with,” he said after his presentation.

First Nations, in fact, have run into many of the same obstacles regarding jurisdiction and repatriation that Burris has encountered, said Rose Miller, archeological supervisor monitor for the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont.

“All of the fights he has – with museums and galleries – we have the same fights,” she said in an interview. “Museums say you have to prove it is ours. The onus is always on us to prove it is ours.”

While her community has primarily focused on reclaiming the remains of ancestors, they are as valuable as stolen art to her community.

“When he [Burris] talks about how hard it is on the Jewish families, it is no different than when we fight to get sacred artifacts back,” she said.

Adam Kahgee, justice director for the Chiefs of Ontario, a political organization that represents 133 First Nations communities in the province, and one of the organizers of the three-day conference said First Nations’ efforts to protect sacred sites and reclaim stolen items are a way to heal their communities.

“You can see the parallel with what Don [Burris] was taking about, the role of getting back art that was taken from the Jewish People… and how that makes them whole and gives them back part of their culture,” he said. “There’s some really interesting parallels between the genocide of Jewish people during World War II and the colonial genocidal practices of Britain and Canada to First Nations and indigenous peoples.”