A New York State law went into effect in August requiring museums to prominently label any artwork in their collections which was looted during the Nazi era.
The legislation mandates that institutions must “place a placard or other signage” alongside works which were confiscated, seized, forcibly stolen or changed hands due to any involuntary means in Europe between 1933 and 1945. But six months later and without any clarity surrounding its regulation, the law has yet to have its intended impact across most major museums in New York City.
“This bill was very important to me, because during the Holocaust there were about 600,000 paintings stolen from Jewish people,” said Anna Kaplan, a former New York State Senator who introduced the bill in January 2021. Its intention was primarily educational, she said, aiming to shed light on the dark paths some works take before ending up in museums. “I’m hoping this is something that could be followed not just in New York, but in the country and hopefully throughout the world.”
But defining what constitutes Nazi-looted artwork has never been simple, said Wesley Fisher, director of research at the Claims Conference and World Jewish Restitution Organization, nonprofits focused on the restitution of property seized during the Holocaust. In 1988, 44 nations including the U.S. agreed to the Washington Conference Principles, which declared that countries should allocate resources towards identifying and publicizing artwork confiscated by the Nazis. The conference didn’t specifically refer to forced sales of artwork, said Fisher, although this aspect was included in the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, approved by the U.S. and 46 other nations. Even so, Fisher said that the question of how to define Nazi-looted artwork often remains unclear.
The term looting “doesn’t cover the variety of ways in which the Nazis and their allies took their items,” said Fisher. “You have everything from items being seized to items that were taken off the walls of people who were deported to concentration camps or otherwise, and then there are items that were forcibly sold or sold under duress,” he said. In addition to artwork which was confiscated or stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators, some victims of Nazi persecution sold off artwork at low prices while fleeing Europe, while others who successfully entered neutral countries ended up selling works due to economic hardship.
“The whole definitional issue here is quite unusual in that New York regulation does not actually define any of this,” said Fisher, who added that the new legislation does not clarify how museums should interpret the law or whether they will face any penalties for neglecting to follow it. “It’s very confusing and it’s not being standardized.”
As it turns out, there are no penalties for ignoring the law, according to Kaplan. “We really left it up to the museums to do the right thing to post, decide what to post, how to post it,” she said. “It’s basically trying to encourage them.”
Is anyone regulating the law?
The New York State Education Department (NYSED) is the agency in charge of administering the bill, said Chuck Lavine, a New York State Assemblymember who sponsored the law. “It actually shouldn’t be very difficult, the museums know which pieces of art were subject to tyranny,” he said. “I don’t view that as being a great challenge.”
However, the NYSED said it doesn’t have any related regulations or an ability to implement the law. “The law itself does not contemplate or require the Department to promulgate regulations and it is unclear why this would be needed,” said the department in a statement. “Only museums themselves would have access to such collection inventories and related documents that would identify such provenance, having researched the works of art themselves, and would then post the information when displayed.”
While the onus to follow the bill is therefore on New York museums, it doesn’t appear to have led to any significant changes across institutions in New York City.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website identifies 53 works in its collection which were looted by the Nazis and later restituted, before being loaned or put back into the market. Of these works, 20 pieces are not currently on view. But the remaining works that are on display haven’t had new identifying placards placed next to them.
Claude Monet’s The Parc Monceau and Georges Braque’s The Studio (Vase Before a Window), for example, are both listed under the Met’s collection of Nazi-looted work. But neither contain any mention of this history within the museum’s physical descriptions placed next to the pieces, although their seizure is referred to within online provenance descriptions. “We have followed this legislation closely and are reviewing its compliance components,” said the museum in a statement, adding that it has long been transparent regarding Nazi-looted artwork and sought resolution for pieces lacking restitution.
Meanwhile, in a statement to the Jerusalem Post, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) said it is unaware of any works at the museum which require action under the new legislation but is reviewing the bill carefully and will comply with its provisions. The museum did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer.
MoMA has 620 works listed on the Nazi-Era Provenance Portal, which is managed by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and includes information about the collections of 179 U.S. museums. The portal lists works which have gaps in their provenance and are suspected of changing hands during the Nazi era, according to Fisher. “It’s not clear that these are Nazi-looted items, many of them are probably not,” he said. “But it constitutes the closest thing to a kind of list.”
The Guggenheim has 289 works listed on the portal, including a 1904 Pablo Picasso painting titled Woman Ironing. In January, the Guggenheim was sued by heirs of Karl Adler, the former owner of the painting who was allegedly forced to sell the work while fleeing Germany under Nazi rule. The museum has denied claims that the work’s sale was not a fair transaction.
The painting, which is currently on display at the museum, includes no reference to Adler’s ownership in its physical description. The Guggenheim did not respond to requests for comment on whether it will be implementing the new legislation.
While some New York museums do have physical signs detailing the history of Nazi-looted artwork on exhibit, these placards were in place before the state bill.
The description next to Marc Chagall’s 1911 painting Father at Manhattan’s Jewish Museum includes several sentences about the work’s former owner David Cender, who was forced to abandon the painting after Poland was invaded in 1939 and his family sent to Auschwitz. While Cender survived, he was not able to recover the work prior to his death in 1966, although it was finally returned to his heirs in April 2022, according to the museum’s signage.
“Our procedures, which predate last year’s ruling, mandate that we continue to research works in our collection that fall into the Nazi-Era and we make this information available on our labels, as well as our website for specific object records and on our dedicated Provenance Research site,” said Darsie Alexander, the museum’s chief curator, in a statement.
Manhattan’s Neue Galerie also incorporates Nazi-looting history in its placards. “The most famous work in the museum’s collection, Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 (1907) by Gustav Klimt, was itself a looted work that was restituted to its rightful owner before entering the collection,” said the museum in a statement, adding that the work’s history has always been displayed at its galleries and on its website, but that it is taking steps to ensure its compliance with the new law.
Unintended negative consequences
While the law is well-intentioned, “in practice it’s difficult to see it changing much,” said Nicholas O’Donnell, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in claims regarding Nazi-looted artwork. Museums have long fought claims to return Nazi-looted art, with some cases lasting decades.
In 2019, the Met won a court case over a Picasso painting called The Actor, after Laurel Zuckerman, the great-grandniece of the work’s original owners, Paul and Alice Leffman, sued for its return and claimed her relatives were forced to sell the work under duress while fleeing Germany under Nazi rule. The case was dismissed in 2018 due to insufficient evidence, with the decision upheld in 2019 by a New York court that ruled Zuckerman waited too long to file the case.
“The Met defended the Picasso lawsuit, they got to a position where they were comfortable doing that,” said O’Donnell. With museums disagreeing over the definitions of Nazi-looted work, “it’s difficult to imagine how they would comply with this law,” he said.
Claims are often rejected on technical grounds regarding the statute of limitations or unreasonable delays for filing suits, said Lawrence Kaye, a New York-based lawyer who represents claimants attempting to recover artwork. “Often these works are very valuable, and very often museums would rather not give them up.”
And labeling all their Nazi-looted works would only further endanger museum collections, said Kaye. “The more information that’s out there, the more likely it is that people may discover claims,” he said, adding that this would be a beneficial outcome of the law and something that was likely envisioned by the bill’s drafters.
As a result, the law could have unintended negative consequences, said O’Donnell, by incentivizing museums to either not display relevant works or to spend less resources investigating their provenance for fear of receiving more claims for restitution. “Sometimes, the cure is worse than the disease.”
However, a slightly adapted bill that focused instead on disclosing information on provenance and transfers in ownership, instead of outright labeling works as Nazi-looted pieces, would be beneficial, according to O’Donnell. “It wouldn’t be so hard to write it a bit different,” he said. “And that would be so much more transparency than exists today.”