Historic art recovery law gets day in court

A new US art restitution law is being put to the test by the heirs of a Holocaust victim to recover two watercolours by Egon Schiele.

‘Woman in a Black Pinafore’ (1911) and ‘Woman Hiding Her Face’ (1912), which have a combined estimated value of US$5 million (£4.04 million) are said to have been among 449 artworks confiscated by the Nazis from the collection of Fritz Grünbaum during World War II. An Austrian Jewish entertainer, Grünbaum was murdered at Dachau concentration camp in 1941.   

When Grünbaum’s heirs discovered that the Schiele watercolours were being sold by London art dealer Richard Nagy they filed suit for their recovery in November 2015. The sale was blocked by a Manhattan judge and now the family is seeking to rely on the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR) to enforce their claim to the works in New York State Court.

Passed by Congress last December, the HEAR Act creates a federal statute of limitations for art restitution claims. It provides a six year window in which to bring a claim beginning with the date a stolen artwork is discovered. Previously, claimants were subject to state-by-state laws, which sometimes barred them from filing art recovery claims after a mere three years. The HEAR legislation was famously supported by actress Helen Mirren who starred in the art restitution drama ‘Woman in Gold’.

For years Grünbaum’s descendants have argued that he was the victim of Nazi art theft. Their efforts to reclaim the works in Grünbaum’s collection were twice rebuffed by arbitration boards in Vienna who ruled there was no evidence that they were stolen. In 2012, the family once again hit a brick wall after their restitution claim for a Schiele drawing, ‘Seated Woman With a Bent Left Leg (Torso)’ (1917), was held to be time-barred by US federal courts.

Lawyers for dealer Nagy argue the case for the watercolours should be dismissed because of the 2012 ruling. They contend that the HEAR Act does not apply where a final judgment has already been laid down and that the latest claim mimics the earlier claim.  “It’s kind of offensive to everybody who’s been involved in this field… to keep touting something which the courts have decided. You had your trial. Evidence was presented, It’s over”, Nagy’s lawyer, Thaddeus Stauber, said in an interview.

With the HEAR Act in place, the Grünbaum heirs hope that the case for the watercolours will be decided on its merits rather than on the basis of legal technicalities. It remains to be seen whether the Act will provide them with sufficient legal muscle to enforce their claim.

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