Nazi-Looted Art: Preserving a Legacy

By Bickford, Alyssa | Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Nazi-Looted Art: Preserving a Legacy


Bickford, Alyssa, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law


CONTENTS  I.   INTRODUCTION II.  BACKGROUND OF MEYER V. BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE      UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA III. THE MUSEUM'S RESPONSIBILITY TO PERFORM DUE DILIGENCE IN      DETERMINING THE PROVENANCE OF LA BERGERE        A. THE ALLIANCE'S STANDARDS        B. THE ASSOCIATION'S GUIDELINES IV.  UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA'S BEST ARGUMENT V.   THE MEYER SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT VI.  POLICY CONCERNS VII. CONCLUSION AND ALTERNATIVE SOLUTIONS 

I. INTRODUCTION

The Holocaust, recognized as one of, if not the most, terrible atrocities in world history, led to the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe. (1) In addition to murdering millions of people and effectively changing the lives of millions more around the world, the Nazi regime confiscated countless works of art from Jewish families. (2) Some sources estimate that [the Nazis] looted between one-fourth and one-third of Europe's art. (3) The Nazis stole artwork across Europe both to humiliate the Jews and for their personal benefit, as Nazis added many stolen pieces to their private collections, In so doing, the Nazis "created entire legal structures based around stripping Jewish people of their legal rights and their possessions, including art." (4) The Nazi regime passed several "statutes and decrees designed to deprive Jews of civil, political, and economic rights," setting the stage for the Holocaust. (5)

After World War II ended, European governments attempted to recover the stolen art and cultural artifacts belonging to Jewish families. (6) The European governments failed, however, to recover or return large numbers of works because they were in private collections, records of the previous owners or locations had been lost, or other factors. (7)

In subsequent decades, pieces of art began to show up in U.S. art museums as a result of donations, bequests, and purchases. (8) Seeing this, original owners and their heirs came forward in increasing numbers to reclaim these pieces. (9) These claims marked the beginning of a decades-long struggle to determine the rightful owners of the pieces and the obligations museums have to research the provenance of pieces in their existing collections and for future gifts and purchases. (10)

In the 2014 case of Meyer v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Okla., victims of looting asked a court to resolve ownership of a piece of artwork that the Nazis had looted, and was sold several times, and ultimately donated to the University of Oklahoma. (11) This case provides just one example of the issues facing claimants, museums, and courts regarding Nazi-looted art. Although this case reached a settlement, the lack of consistency and uniformity in this area of the law necessitates stronger guidelines to protect the competing interests of claimants and museums to the disputed pieces of art.

II. BACKGROUND OF MEYER V. BOARD OF REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

Meyer involved a painting by Camille Pissarro known as La bergere rentrant des moutons (La Bergere), or Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep, (12) which is currently on display in the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (the Museum). (13) The plaintiff, Leone Meyer, is the daughter of Raoul Meyer, whose extensive art collection included La Bergere. (14) The plaintiff alleged that the Nazis seized La Bergere during World War II. (15) After she discovered the location of La Bergere at the Museum through a blog post in 2012, Meyer filed suit to recover the painting and return it to the possession of her family. (16)

Raoul Meyer was a prominent Jewish-French citizen who possessed a large collection of French art that he had placed in a branch of the French bank, Credit Commercial de France, in March 1940, in an effort to protect it from confiscation by the Nazis. (17) Despite his efforts, the Nazis looted Meyer's collection, as well as countless other works of art belonging to other French families, in early 1941. (18) After the end of World War II in 1945, the French government created the "Commission de Recuperation Artistique" (the Commission) to research the artworks looted from private collections during the war. …

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