New legislation for artworks with Nazi-looted provenance in New York institutions

New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced last week that she had signed new legislation introduced by Senator Anna Kaplan and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic to ensure younger generations have a greater awareness of the events of the Holocaust. One element of this legislation specifies that museums in New York must “prominently” display a placard on some other type of signage indicating when a work of art was stolen by the Nazis.

Some 600,000 works of art were stolen during World War Two and, as the new law reads, “many museums now display this stolen art with no recognition of their provenance.” The law explains that, “the looting was not only designed to enrich the Third Reich but also integral to the Holocaust’s goal of eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture.” Hochul added in statement that, “as New Yorkers, we are united in our solemn commitment to Holocaust survivors: we will never forget.” Also in the statement, Anna Kaplan explained the importance of these new laws, saying, “with antisemitism on the rise, and Holocaust misinformation exploding around the world, it’s never been more important that we learn the lessons of the Holocaust, and ensure our next generation knows about our history, no matter how dark or difficult the conversation may be.”

This new law will add to the current New York state law on Nazi-looted art, which requires that works which were created before 1945 and which changed ownership in Europe during the Nazi era must be registered with the Art Loss Register, so that descendants of those who may have had works of art stolen are able to check the register.

There have been a number of recent restitution cases involving New York museums, revealing just how many artworks with Nazi-looted provenance can turn up in high profile institutions. As ARTnews reports, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum filed a joint suit seeking an ownership claim over two Picasso paintings, Boy Leading a Horse (1906) and Le Moulin de la Galette (1900), after German historian Julius Schoeps claimed that these works were sold under pressure from the Nazis by his uncle during the war. The works have remained in their respective institutions. In 2010, descendants of German Jewish couple Paul and Alice Leffman, who had sold another Picasso painting, The Actor (1904-5) for a fraction of its market value before fleeing to Brazil, requested the Metropolitan Museum of Art return the painting. The museum refused the request, and in 2016 a lawsuit was filed against the institution by the descendants. The claim was eventually dismissed by the District Court and the Court of Appeals, and it remains in the collection of the Met.

The legislation follows a recent survey which revealed a “shockingly poor awareness and understanding of the events of the Holocaust” among New York millennials, and aimed to provide future generations with a “meaningly education on the Holocaust”. Alongside new signage in museums, the legislation allows the State Education Department to conduct surveys to identify which schools are teaching the required Holocaust history. A further element of the legislation requires the Department of Financial Services to publish a list of banks that waive transfer and processing fees associated with reparation payments.

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