Is There a Statute of Limitations on Reclaiming Stolen Artwork?

The Nazis viewed modern art as “degenerate” and therefore confiscated whatever pieces of art they found to be “degenerate,” but that didn’t stop them from profiting off those pieces of art.

While the Nazi party refused to display artwork it did not approve of in German museums, they saw nothing wrong with selling the artwork to foreign buyers, which is how many pieces of art confiscated by the Nazis came to be displayed in American museums. That puts those museums in a morally uncomfortable position.

While the Nazis claim they “confiscated” works of art from its citizens, the truth is that they stole the artwork and used the proceeds from selling it to fund a fascist regime that killed millions of people.

In general, American museums recognize that artworks “confiscated” by Nazis are stolen, and that the Nazis had no legal right to sell them. As a result, American museums have returned many pieces of stolen artwork to the heirs of their original owners or creators, but the Philadelphia Museum of Art is still hanging on to “Composition with Blue” by Piet Mondrian, which was “confiscated” by the Nazis and sold to an American during WWII.

Mondrian had given the painting to Sophie Küppers, a German art historian and dealer, shortly after he completed it in 1926. The next year, Küppers moved to the Soviet Union, leaving the painting in Hanover at the Provinzialmuseum. After the Nazis came to power, they “confiscated” the painting, whereupon it was given to Karl Buchholz to sell to a foreign buyer.

Buchholz had a business partner, Curt Valentin, who was based in New York, so Buchholz sent the painting to Valentin to be sold in the United States. Valentin sold it to an art collector named Albert E. Gallatin.

There is no evidence that Gallatin knew who had owned the painting before it was stolen by the Nazis, instead he appears to have thought it was owned by the Hanover museum. When U.S. art collectors were criticized for buying stolen artwork from the Nazis, Gallatin suggested such pieces of art should be returned to their original owners if the Nazis were ever removed from power.

Mondrian himself left Paris in 1938 before WWII started and ended up in New York City. He wrote to Gallatin at the end of 1939, telling him he was pleased with where his painting had ended up.

Upon his death, Mondrian’s will gave his whole estate to his friend, Harry Holtzman, another artist.

Holtzman’s three children are now suing the Philadelphia Museum of Art to return the painting to them as the painting’s legal owners. They claim that Mondrian never ceded the title for the painting to anyone else, and therefore it should legally have transferred to Holtzman’s possession along with the rest of Mondrian’s estate.

Timothy Rub, the CEO and director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has returned other artifacts lost during WWII to museums in Germany, Dresden, and the Czech Republic, but he’s questioning the validity of this claim. He points to Mondrian’s letter to Gallatin as evidence that Mondrian ceded ownership of the artwork.

Holtzman’s heirs claim Mondrian might not have realized he still had a legal right to the painting after the Nazis “confiscated” it. They also point out that the Nazis’s own laws prohibited taking possessions from individuals who were not German citizens, which means Buchholz and Valentin had no legal right to sell the painting.

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