Statute of limitations laws may prevent previous owners successfully reclaiming art acquired during the Nazi purge of the late 1930s that was hoarded in a Munich flat.
say art law specialists Pierre Valentin and Hannah Shield, who have
published their analysis of the case in an article entitled Out
of the shadows of the Third Reich.
complicate matters further, the New York Times reports
that as the 1938 law allowing the Nazis to confiscate artworks from
museums has never been rescinded, those institutions from which
around 380 works in the hoard were seized may have no claim on them
Cornelius Gurlitt, in whose
apartment the works were found, is the son of art dealer Hildebrand
Gurlitt, who allegedly acquired the 'degenerate' art at Hitler's
request with a view to its disposal.
Although Gurlitt Junior, now
80, is under investigation for tax evasion in relation to the
hoard, to date he has not been charged with any offence and he
still lays claim to the art.
"The law of
restitution is complex and claims can take a long time to resolve,"
Valentin and Shield
"Claimants will be expected to prove
ownership and their right to pursue the claim as heirs of the
original owner. A fundamental obstacle in their way could be the
rules on limitation. Depending on the jurisdiction in which
claimants bring their claims, they may find that the claims have
expired, because too long a period of time has lapsed since their
forebears lost possession of the artworks."
The complexity of rules across a
number of jurisdictions means that the exact status of many of the
1400 works in the €1bn hoard remains unclear.
"If German rules of limitation apply,
it may well be the case that any claim brought today would be out
of time because more than 30 years have passed since Gurlitt Jr
came into possession of the artworks," say Valentin and
"Whether courts outside Germany have
jurisdiction over claims to the artworks, and whether such courts
would apply limitation rules more favourable to the claimants, will
depend on the facts in each case."
However, international precedent means
that politics may eventually intervene in the law, they
German government may also decide to intervene because the
circumstances are such that applying the law would be so iniquitous
as to shock the collective conscience."
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