Helen Mirren stands up in support of restituted artworks

Helen Mirren lent her voice and her star status at a hearing in Washington D.C. on Tuesday (7 June) in support of a historic US Senate bill designed to simplify the process of restituting stolen artworks to the heirs of victims of Nazi art theft.

The legislation for the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act was introduced into Congress in April this year. It provides for “a fair opportunity to recover works of art confiscated or misappropriated by the Nazis” and relaxes the strict statute of limitations to allow restitution claims to be brought within 6 years of locating looted art and providing evidence of the right to recover it.

“Restitution is so much more… than reclaiming a material good”, Mirren reminded the two Senate judiciary subcommittees during her testimony on Capitol Hill. “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,” she said.

In last year’s film ‘Woman in Gold’, the Oscar-winning actress played Maria Altmann, the Austrian-American niece of the subject of Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”. The film tells the true story of Altmann’s struggle to recover the painting from the Austrian government after it was stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II.

Currently, the US is a signatory to the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. The treaty calls for a “just and fair solution” for victims of persecution during the Holocaust but it does not have the force of law. Consequently, the families of victims have struggled to reclaim the tens of thousands of artworks estimated to have been looted by the Nazis.

President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, also testified before the Senate committee on Tuesday. Lauder described how restitution efforts have been impeded by “legal barriers like arbitrary statutes of limitations” and the inertia of museums and private collections worldwide where many stolen works are now thought to reside:

“This was the dirty secret of the post-war art world, and people who should have known better, were part of it”, Lauder said.

In a surprising gesture of bipartisanship, the Senate bill has been sponsored by Republican senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn together with Democrat Senators Charles Schumer and Richard Blumenthal. Despite its celebrity backing, there are fears the bill might fail because of the right of individual US states to set their own statutes of limitations.

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