October 18, 2019
It had to be one of the strangest moments of the 20th Century caught on film but there it was – a photo of Nazi bigshot Hermann Goering toting a painting he’d just looted from an Amsterdam art gallery. It popped up onscreen briefly during a talk given last night at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown by attorney Howard Spiegler.
Speigler had explained the events leading up to that moment in the context of Nazi looted art. Jacques Goudstikker was a very successful art dealer in Holland who fled when the Nazis invaded. He died fleeing for his life and that’s when Goering strong armed a couple of gallery hands into selling both the gallery and its contents for way below market value.
The haul consisted of hundreds of art works including dozens of Old Masters. To hear Speigler tell it, one might almost conclude that the Nazis invaded Holland primarily to grab the art. It was like the first thing on Goering’s to-do list. It took almost seven decades to return most of the looted works to the family’s sole living descendant.
In another art story, Speigler described how Egon Schiele‘s Portrait of Wally spent years in New York City following what was originally planned as a brief loan to MoMA. A claim of disputed ownership kept going in State and Federal courtrooms for a decade. It finally made its way back to the European museum whence it came and a large payment was made to the rightful owners.
As fascinating as these art stories are, there’s another theme running right underneath them. Legally, you can’t rightfully own something that’s stolen. But, also legally, after a certain amount of time passes you can’t make a claim about it. Regarding Nazi looted art this presented a problem. People were killed in the Holocaust or they died otherwise, records were destroyed or lost, families learned of the stolen art many years later, it kicked up painful memories, and so on. Any number of potential claims had timed out before a family could address these thefts. Additionally, Nazi looted art liberated by the Allies was returned to the government of the countries from which it came rather than to the owners or families from whom it was taken. There were many obstacles.
Lawyers including Speigler worked hard to fix this and have largely closed that loophole. While there can never be justice for the terrible things the Nazis did, a measure of restitution has been achieved – at least regarding some of the art they looted.
Himmler said the grandchildren would want the stolen property returned if all the Jews weren’t killed.