The recovery of art stolen by the Nazis is arguably the thorniest of the remaining post-Shoah issues. It certainly is the murkiest. Being able to tell the good guys from the bad is easy in most cases. Where art is concerned, that is not always possible.
A case in point is the current lawsuit against New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan. At the heart of the case are three works by the Expressionist painter George Grosz – a “Self-Portrait With Model”; a portrait of the poet Max Herrmann-Neisse; and “Republican Automatons.” When Grosz, who was not Jewish, fled Germany, he entrusted the works to a dealer in Berlin for safekeeping. The dealer was Jewish. When he was forced to flee for his life, he sold everything that he could, including the three paintings.
During the 1950s, MoMA acquired all three works. The Grosz family says they are stolen art and wants them back. MoMA says it researched the artworks’ provenance and there is no basis to the Grosz family’s claim.
In April 2009, the Grosz family filed a lawsuit in New York to recover the three works. That case may never be heard – not because a court has ruled that it is without merit, but because courts have said it is not timely, having been filed after the legal deadline.
Late next month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether it will hear an appeal on the timeliness issue alone.
We hope the court does agree to hear the case, despite the many seemingly more pressing cases clamoring for its attention. A number of Holocaust-era art claims are in process or pending, and more may surface, and timeliness is the usual weapon wielded to get them dismissed. A high court decision is needed to exempt such claims from externally imposed deadlines.
The United States is on record as saying that deciding looted art cases on the basis of such technicalities is unfair. Others have gone farther, saying that it is tantamount to stealing the art yet again.
This is not the first time MoMA has been involved in a looted art case. In fact, it was at the center of the most famous such case to date, involving Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally.” In general, the museum world opposes returning looted art (the Jewish Museum, for example, supported MoMA in the Schiele case). There is a case to be made for the museum world’s position – but it is a case built on technicalities, not justice.