BERLIN - At New York's Museum of Modern Art, two oil paintings by
German expressionist George Grosz are viewed by millions every year
visiting the Manhattan institution.
The two works, as well as a
watercolor in storage, were stolen from the artist who fled the Nazis in
1933, his heirs say. They want them back, but MoMA has said no and U.S.
courts backed up the museum's argument that the statute of limitations
on retrieving such art had lapsed.
Lilian Grosz, the artist's
daughter-in-law, had hoped the "moral ramifications" of the request
would have been a mitigating factor on her family's side.
"Unfortunately, that did not carry the day," she said. "We were, of course, very disappointed."
Grosz family's fight illustrates an overlooked and unexpected aspect of
the battle to reclaim stolen property and art after wide-scale looting
by Nazis during World War II: It is often more difficult for those
seeking restitution to win it in the USA than in Germany or many other
European countries, experts say.
"U.S. museums have done everything possible to avoid judicial review
of their determinations with respect to Holocaust-looted art claims,"
said Charles Goldstein, a New-York-based attorney who specializes in
restitution for Nazi-looted art.
The Groszes' experience is not
unique. The issue of looted art received renewed interest in November
after the announcement that a stash of more than 1,400 paintings, many
from well known masters and stolen from art dealers, was found in
The heirs of the original owners demand their return. In
Germany they have a much better chance than in the USA, where the legal
system leans in favor of those holding contested art.
Countries such as Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom and
the Netherlands all have national commissions that act as arbitrators in
cases of allegedly Nazi-seized art. These commissions take only the
merits of a given case into account - not individual laws of the host
The creation of the commissions stems from the 1998
Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, a non-binding
international agreement that the United States and dozens of other
nations have signed that calls for openness and transparency in the
recovery of Holocaust-era art.
The pact says that "consideration
should be given to unavoidable gaps or ambiguities in the provenance in
light of the passage of time and the circumstances of the Holocaust era"
and that parties to the agreement are "encouraged to develop national
processes to implement (the conference's) principles."
States has not created a commission to handle the claims. Most U.S.
museums are private rather than government-owned, so they don't have to
make public what they have if they don't want to.
suspect a U.S. museum of having looted art must go through the courts,
which usually support the claims of the possessors of the artwork,
"Our museums in the U.S. are much more secretive and don't really
research or publish the knowledge about their collections," said Raymond
Dowd, a New-York-based lawyer who has represented the Groszes and other
families trying to reclaim art. "The Germans are much more open, and
they have the additional pressure of national commissions that were
agreed to by the Washington principles."
In the Grosz case, his heirs seek return of three works. Self-Portrait With a Model portrays the artist painting a voluptuous model standing in front of a mirror. The Poet Max Herrmann-Neisse is a portrait of the writer, aged and slumped in a chair. Republican Automatons is a watercolor depicting clockwork automatons standing on a city street, one of which is holding a German flag.
Grosz was a German artist whose drawings of Berlin life in the 1920s
often depicted its seamier side. He was anti-Nazi and fled to America
before Hitler came to power out of fear that he would be persecuted as a
degenerate artist. He left behind with his art dealer artworks that
eventually turned up at MoMA in the 1940s and 1950s - two from private
purchase and one that was donated.
Grosz himself saw The Poet Max Hermann-Neisse
hanging in MoMA in 1953. He wrote his brother-in-law that the museum
was displaying a painting stolen from him, but he made no effort to have
it returned and died in 1959.
His son, Martin, and his daughter-in-law, Lilian, investigated the
paintings and made their first formal request to have them returned in
2003. They argued that Grosz's Jewish art dealer had been coerced into
selling or abandoning the paintings and that subsequent paperwork was
falsified to make the provenance of the paintings appear legitimate.
MoMA's experts concluded that the sales had been made fairly. The Groszes sued.
Grosz said their lawyers had warned them that the case would face an
uphill battle. When a court dismissed the lawsuit in 2011 on grounds
that they had been too slow to file their claim, it nonetheless came as
a surprise to the family.
"You know the song, 'Whatever Lola Wants, Lola gets'? Whatever MoMA wants, MoMA gets," Lilian Grosz said.
In an e-mailed statement, the MoMA said it has proper ownership and did nothing wrong.
years of extensive research, including numerous conversations with
Grosz's estate, it was evident that we did, in fact, have good title to
the works by Grosz in our collection and therefore an obligation to the
public to defend our ownership appropriately," the museum stated.
Looted art does get returned in the USA. The Association of Art
Museum Directors' lists on its website many examples - paintings,
plaques, textiles and other objects returned by MoMA and other museums.
says U.S. museums have a legal advantage not found in many other
nations. In most cases, it's not possible to bring legal claims in the
USA for alleged looted art more than three years after it was stolen, he
says, which isn't reasonable given the violent chaos in Europe during
the Holocaust era.
"You have to have a different standard of proof
for this kind of looting, particularly because it was 70 years ago,"
There are at least two possible solutions to this
problem, experts say. One is an independent body set up to evaluate
claims, like those in Europe.
"There's a big move in America to
try to set up an art commission," said Anne Webber, co-chair of the
London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe. "Under (the Washington
principles), you're supposed to set up a national claims process, and I
think people feel if there were to be a national claims process in the
States, at least there would be a consistent way of dealing with claims
and museums would not be able to go to the courts and get claims
dismissed that way without proper consideration of them."
other option would be legislation addressing the statute of limitations
issue at the federal level. California passed a law to expand the
statute of limitations for Nazi-looted art, but it was struck down in
court in 2009 on the grounds that it infringed on federal powers.
"There's no reason why Congress couldn't do it," Goldstein said.
"Simply provide that claims for looted art in the period of 1933 to 1945
can be brought for another, say, 10 years."
Randy Schoenberg, a
Los Angeles-based lawyer, said that laws, not non-binding international
agreements, are the only way to ensure justice is done.
"The Washington principles are a red herring and not worth mentioning," he said. "If it's not a law, it's not a law."
Lilian Grosz says a renewed focus on the U.S. laws was the one good thing to come of her family's lost battle.
is happening, which I'm happy about, is it keeps getting brought up
over and over again," she said. "It's a dog that won't just sit still
and lie down and be good."