The Holocaust and Restitution of Confiscated Art – Part 4

Dame Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold (Entertainment One photo)

 “Confiscation of art by the Nazis during World War II has been described as the ‘greatest displacement of art in human history.’” The Sheppard Mullin Art Law Blog continues, “Almost twenty per cent of all European art was taken by the Nazis during this dark period in history and an estimated number of 300,000 artworks are still missing today.” 

In my previous articles, I have looked at the continuing fight over Holocaust reparations and restitution. Although the Second World War ended over 70 years ago, survivors and their heirs are still trying to recover their precious artworks. On December 16, 2016, U.S. President Barak Obama signed the Holocaust Expropriated Recovery Act (or HEAR Act) into law. It lengthens the statute of limitations for stolen artwork to a uniform six years from the date the art is identified and located, and evidence of ownership has been presented.

Among those appearing before the Judiciary Subcommittee studying the Act was Dame Helen Mirren. Mirren portrayed Maria Altmann in the film, Woman in Gold. Altmann was an elderly Jewish refugee who fought the government of Austria for almost a decade to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting of her aunt. 

As Mirren told the subcommittee, “art lost in the Holocaust is not just important for its esthetic and cultural value. Restitution is so much more, much more than that, that reclaiming a material good. … Art restitution is about preserving the fundamental human condition. It gives Jewish people and other victims of the Nazi terror the opportunity to reclaim their history, their culture, their memories. And most importantly, their families.” You can watch Mirren’s appearance before the Subcommittee here.

Woman in Gold is not the only recent film which grapples with the confiscation of Jewish property. The Hungarian film, 1945, released last year is set in post-war Hungary just after the conclusion of the war. When two Orthodox Jews arrive in town, locals fear that they may be heirs to local Jews who had been deported and have shown up to claim property that had been illegally seized. Worse still, there are concerns that more Jewish survivors are on the way intending to claim more property and possessions. The World Jewish Restitution Organization has presented 1945 its first annual WJRO Justice Award for raising awareness about property confiscated from Jews during the Holocaust. The film currently has a score of 96 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes.


Now back to the contemporary world. In the first successful application of the HEAR Act earlier this year, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that artworks must be returned to the heirs of an Austrian man who owned them before he died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1941. Fritz Grünbaum was a Jewish Viennese cabaret performer who owned a 449-piece collection including two valuable drawings by Egon Schiele, “Woman in a Black Pinafore” (1911) and “Woman Hiding her Face” (1912). Their value is estimated at $5 to $7 million US.

The heirs had lost a previous 2005 case when the court ruled that they had waited too long. The difference this time was the act. “The HEAR Act compels us to help return Nazi-looted art to its heirs,” Judge Charles J. Ramos wrote in his ruling. “Justice Ramos’ strong vindication of the HEAR Act shows that jurists will uphold Congress’ intent to provide justice to Holocaust victims and their survivors,” Raymond Dowd, lawyer for the heirs, told the New York Times. The art dealer who lost the case plans to appeal.

There are several excellent resources available to people trying to recover their art:

  • The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an overview of the fight.  
  • The Smithsonian links to lost art databases in Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland and Russia.
  • The website’s Information Database contains laws, policies and reports from 49 countries. Its Object Database contains details of over 25,000 looted or missing objects – paintings, drawings, antiquities and Judaica. 
  • The Art Loss Register calls itself “the world’s largest database of stolen art.” 

Most owners of art of questionable provenance do not go out of their way to flag that the collection that they own today may be a result of art that had been confiscated by the Nazis. However, I came across a fascinating BBC article about one company which treats its art – and its responsibility to the past – differently. Dr. Oetker, the German frozen pizza and processed foods company, has historic ties to the Nazis. It has amassed thousands of priceless items, some of which may be Nazi confiscated art. They have voluntarily entered the details of more than 1,000 pieces of art onto

“It’s a pity that there are still some companies that haven’t stepped into their history,” Joerg Schillinger told the BBC. “We were quite late, 70 years after the war, but we are very happy that we did it.”