US government votes in favour of art restitution law

In a rare moment of solidarity in US politics a historic art restitution bill was passed by Congress on Friday (9 December).

Proposed in April this year, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR) facilitates the restitution process by which Nazi-looted art is returned to its rightful pre-war owners. The bill was backed by Republican senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn together with Democrat Senators Charles Schumer and Richard Blumenthal.

The HEAR Act offers claimants a six year window beginning with the date a stolen artwork is discovered in which to bring an action for its return and prove their right to it. Previously, families of victims of Nazi-era art theft were subject to state-by-state statutes of limitations barring them from pursuing a claim sometimes after as little as three years.

The Act also provides claimants with a much more concrete means of obtaining justice than the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. This treaty has been signed by 44 countries but it lacks the force of law.

There had been fears that the passage of the HEAR bill into law might be thwarted by states concerned with protecting their individual right to impose their own statutes of limitations. Nonetheless, in a surprise show of bipartisanship both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted unanimously in favour of the bill.

The passage of the HEAR bill was boosted by a celebrity endorsement from actress Helen Mirren, star of art restitution film ‘Woman in Gold’. She sparked a media frenzy when she addressed a Senate hearing on the proposed law in June this year. “The very act of Nazi expropriation was not only unjust but it was inhumane,” Mirren told two Senate judiciary subcommittees. “We are incapable of changing the past, but fortunately we have the ability to make change today”.

All that remains is for President Obama to sign off on the HEAR bill as he is expected to do.


One thought on “US government votes in favour of art restitution law

  1. Guy Stair Sainty says:

    Nonetheless, whatever the unquestionable justice of the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, the failure of the US and European governments to deal with the injustices of the expropriation of private property by the totalitarian communist regimes which succeeded the Nazis is no less morally and legally wrong. The museums of Eastern Europe have been enriched by property seized from families whose only crime was to be citizens of the country taken over by the communists. Similarly, Russia seized the property of the great Russian collectors Shchukin and Morozov, and the many aristocratic collections following the revolution with no compensation. Russia also holds numerous works of art seized from German museums and from German citizens whose collections had in turn been taken by the Nazis. Austria has improperly held on to private property of the Habsburg family which had actually been returned to the family in the early 1930s and then confiscated again by Hitler. When the Austrians agreed to return Nazi seized property in 1955 (although the Austrian republic did its utmost to avoid returning Jewish owned property) the government specifically excluded the property of the former ruling family, even though this had been confiscated by the Nazis.


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