29/09/2017 Stolen Treasures

War refugee Maria Altmann (1916-2011) looked so much like a movie character that she eventually became one. The film “Woman in Gold” (2015), with Helen Mirren, tells the legal battle she fought with authorities in Austria to retrieve five paintings of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), owned by a family and taken during the period Nazi. Today, the story serves as a legal support for cases to gain traction in international courts: the return of works of art stolen during years of conflict or in illicit possession by non-heirs. For lawyers specialized in the field, the trend is escalating in the number of agreements, especially when involving assets looted in World War II (1939-1945).

This year, a California Federal Court has ruled that it has jurisdiction over actions for the recovery of works even if they are outside the United States, in a case that was placed by the pre-eminent Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, which manages the Madrid museum, by the same name. At the same time, a new US law, passed at the end of 2016 and known as the “Holocaust Expropriation Art Recovery Act” (HEAR Act), brought more regulations to the area and placed lawyers and large collections on alert.

“The Altmann case is important in the judicial sphere for several reasons,” explains Los Angeles attorney Robert Muller to Valor Magazine. “First, it shows that legal action can be initiated in an American court against foreign governments and institutions, even if the properties are not here.” It also signals, he says, that US courts will continue to receive claims of looted items from the Nazi era. Muller is a specialist, who acts in cases related to the fine arts and intellectual property markets.

Valued at more than €150 Million (US$180 Million), the five paintings of Klimt that belonged to the family of Maria Altmann were in the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, from the end of the Second War. Maria was the niece of the Jewish industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who left Austria after the Nazi invasion of 1938. The eight-year legal contest began in 1999 when she lived in Los Angeles, sued the State of Austria in a Viennese court and then in an American court. The court decided in her favor in 2006.

Among the objects in the dispute was “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), one of Klimt’s best-known paintings, which depicts Maria’s aunt on a golden background. With the court victory, she sold the painting for an estimated $135 Million to Ronald Lauder, owner of the Neue Gallery in New York. Lauder is the son of Joseph and Estée Lauder, creators of the cosmetics brand, who founded an organization to locate pieces of art captured by the Nazis.

For Muller, disputes related to unlawful possession of works always present two obstacles to the heirs: the high firepower of the institutions that now keep the pieces and the difficulty of proving the origin of the goods. “Mary’s story shows a process that puts an individual against museums and governments that do not spare judicial expenses,” he says. “Also, it is difficult to get evidence to take action forward.” In Maria’s case, a journalist discovered documents that suggested that the employees of the Belvedere Museum, which is state owned, did not know if her family had actually donated the canvases.

Recently, another lawsuit brought together lawyers and collectors before a judge. The case Cassirer vs. Thysen-Bornemisza Foundation and the government of Spain began in 2010, says that her family was forced to sell a painting of the French Expressionist Camille Pissaro (1830-1945) for $360, to an art dealer in Berlin during the Hitler years (1913-1945).

The work of art, “Rue Saint-Honoré, dans Láprès-midi Effect de Pluie” (1897), which shows a street in Paris, was confiscated by the Nazi’s Gestapo (Secret Police), changed hands in the 1940s, 1950s and 1970s, and was finally acquired in 1988 by Baron Hans-Hrinrich Thysen-Bornemisza (1921-2002), one of the creators of the Thysen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. The latest ruling in the case, given in July, relied on the new Hear Act. As a result, the case survived the courts with the defense calling for a show cause recommendation. Today the picture is worth more than $30 million.

“Since the Hear Act was enacted, there is a growing interest from clients in the search for looted works,” says Miller. The rule gives the right to investigate theft occurred more than 70 years ago and applicants have up to six years from the date of location of the allegedly subtracted piece to initiate the claim of possession. “In the market, there is a general feeling that prosecutions linked to Nazi looting and processed in American courts will gain new life, even after so much time.”

Two years ago, paintings by Henry Matisse (1869-1954) were returned to the families of their former owners, Jewish collectors who were also persecuted by the Nazis. Descendants of Fritz Grunbaum, an Austrian who died in a Dachau concentration camp in Germany, wanted two drawings by Egon Schiele (1890-1918): “Woman in a Black Pinafore” (1911) and “Woman Hiding Her Face” (1912), valued at more than US$ 1.5 million, under the custody of an English dealer. The decision must be made by the State of New York courts.

According to Miller, there are no data on the number of cases in the pipeline, but during the release of the film “Woman in Gold,” the producers stated that there are more than 100,000 works that had disappeared because of the war. In the conflict, Adolf Hittler (1889-1945) led a campaign to kidnap rarities from collectors in occupied countries. The aim was to build an Austria museum, as reported in the book “Hunters of Fine Works” (Rocco, 2014), by American Robert Edsel. The book by Edsel was turned into a film directed and stared by George Clooney.

Rodrigo Salinas, a partner at the Cesnik, Quintinos and Salinas Law Office and professor of entertainment law at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), says decisions made by US judges can be adopted in Brazil. “But only if the Brazilian law applicable to these facts has the same meaning and interpretation as US law,” explains Salinas, an expert in this area, who also advises galleries, artists and museums. “On the other hand, our judiciary cannot judge a case whose defendant is not in the country.”

Salinas, one of the speakers at a seminar held in São Paulo, “Works of Art and its Current Themes: A Global View”, emphasizes that the idea of a limitation period for recovered stolen “treasure” can be counted from the date of the objects reappearance rather than by the date the object was considered missing is viewed very positively by the public. “This discussion is so interesting that Brazilians are now much more aware of the risks associated with the sale and possession of works of art”, says Salinas.

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