Congress has passed and President Obama is expected to sign two bills related to looted art and the availability of U.S. courts to hear disputes over them. The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act of 2016 and the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Clarification Act (FCEJCA, for lack of a handy acronym) were both passed without objection both the House of Representatives on December 10, 2016, and are expected to be signed by President Obama shortly. The HEAR Act is a major shift in the law of Nazi-looted art claims specifically, while the FCEJCA is controversial but unlikely to have a broad impact one way or another. It is perhaps most remarkable that in an era of unique partisanship and political polarization, members of Congress from both parties and the President agreed on anything, let alone unanimously (sponsors include such unusual allies as Ted Cruz, Richard Blumenthal, John Cornyn, and Charles Schumer).
Topics: Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, Immunity from Seizure Act, 22 U.S.C. § 2459, Russia, Chabad, 28 U.S.C. § 1605, expropriation exception”, FSIA, Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Welfenschatz, Alfred Flechtheim, Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional, Guelph Treasure, World War II, Restitution, Nazi-looted art, NS Raubkunst, Legislation, Ted Cruz, Charles Schumer, John Cornyn, Richard Blumenthal, Mikhail Piotrovsky, Politico, State Hermitage Museum, Anita Difanis
Two restitution related bills have advanced past the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate: the Holocaust Expropriated Art Act (S.B. 2763, the HEAR Act), and the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Clarification Act, S.B. 3155. Their advancement for consideration by the full Senate is interesting since in many ways they are at cross purposes with each other. The analytical coverage of each has also been somewhat frustrating insofar as much of the reasons expounded by their proponents do not really describe what the bills would do. The HEAR Act would not restitute any Nazi looted art, rather, it would harmonize as federal law the statute of limitations on such claims. The Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Clarification Act would not “reward” Russia or other foreign museums with art claimed by others, it would eliminate a jurisdictional scenario that has only happened once. The fact is that both bills are of dubious merit because they are of limited effect, and may cause more harm than good.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing this week (video available here) on the Holocaust Art Recovery Act (the “HEAR Act”) that drew welcome attention to the ongoing challenges to the restitution of Nazi-looted art. We were skeptical about the bill’s chances for passage when it was proposed for largely structural reasons: it is the summer before a Presidential election, which is a time when things rarely get done in Washington. Yet it is undeniable that with its bipartisan sponsors Richard Blumenthal, Charles Schumer, Ted Cruz, and John Cornyn—strange political bedfellows under any circumstance—the hearing was an open and constructive discussion that showcased real momentum towards passage. Senator Chuck Grassley’s expediting of the hearing is also a sign that there may be a vote soon. This is important, because recent bills to amend the FSIA as to looted art claims, for example, have never even had a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, let alone gotten a vote (they did pass the House first). Yesterday’s hearing definitely moves the bill into a different category with regard to its prospects. The President has not made any comments on it—yet.
Among the many challenges that litigants over Nazi-looted art face in the United States is a lack of uniformity. Statutes of limitations vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and interpretations of jurisdictional laws like the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act differ from one Court of Appeals to another. This is particularly challenging in the context of the Washington Conference on Nazi Looted Art of 1998 because private disputes are where the issue has meaning in the United States. There is no national commission to address potentially looted art in public possession like those in Austria, Germany, or the Netherlands (however well or poorly some of those commissions perform) because there is very little art in national ownership about which the federal government has any power to decide. Thus, in assessing U.S. compliance with the Washington Principles, it is often left to private litigants to argue about what the Principles mean in individual disputes. Happily, appellate courts have begun to reject consistently the denialist defenses of foreign countries that wish to keep stolen art just because they say so, holding that the Washington Principles support the ability of heirs to pursue claims. Yet the uneven landscape is still daunting.
A new bill introduced this week would address that, though its chances of passage into law in a contentious election season are hard to be optimistic about.