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Lawyers in our association are assisting to recover artwork stolen during the Holocaust—I am in; how about you?

­I have always been fascinated and outraged that art and antiquities stolen during the Holocaust remain hanging in museums or in the hands of private collectors and are not returned to the families owning these treasures. There are more than 70,000 Jewish Americans in metro Detroit, 80 percent of whom live in Oakland County.1 For generations of Jewish Americans, the treasures of lost livelihoods survived only in family lore.

From 1933 through 1945, Nazi Germany systematically and methodically looted valuable artwork from Jewish families across Europe.2 Many victims and their heirs have yet to recover their artwork stolen during the “greatest displacement of art in human history.”3 To date, approximately 300,000 valuable pieces of Jewish cultural heritage remain unreturned.

For more than 70 years in U.S. courts, governments, museums and art dealers have prevented litigation seeking the restoration of stolen art on the merits by relying upon the statutes of limitations in various states across the country.4

However, recently Congress passed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act of 2016, which was signed by President Barack Obama on December 16, 2016. The HEAR Act revives legal claims in federal courts related to the theft of artwork during the Holocaust to “provide the victims of Holocaust-era persecution and their heirs a fair opportunity to recover works of art confiscated or misappropriated by the Nazis.”5

Under the HEAR Act, a claimant may bring a civil claim or cause of action against a defendant to recover any artwork or other property that was lost due to Nazi persecution between January 1, 1933, and December 31, 1945, not later than “six years after the actual discovery by the claimant or the agent of the claimant.”6 The term “actual discovery” is defined by the statute as: 1) knowing the identity and location of the artwork or other property, and 2) the claimant having a possessory interest in the artwork or other property.7 The HEAR Act also provides a cause of action for claimants who actually discovered missing artwork before the date of the enactment of the HEAR Act but were barred by a federal or state statute of limitations.8 All claims actually discovered after the HEAR Act’s enactment now have a six-year statute of limitations to bring a claim, while any permissible pre-existing claims now have a renewed six-year period beginning on the date of the statute’s enactment.9
With the HEAR Act’s enactment, the race is now on to identify and assist victims and heirs file claims within the renewed statute of limitations, or before new claims will be effectively barred on January 1, 2027. To help foster this effort, the Arts, Communications, Entertainment & Sports (ACES) Section of the State Bar of Michigan has collaborated with the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan (JBAM) to launch a Holocaust Art Recovery Initiative. Jonathan H. Schwartz, an Oakland County lawyer and member of our association, is a past chair of ACES and the current president of JBAM. He is committed to this project. So am I. It starts with trying to figure out what was taken and to whom it belongs. The provenance of the piece is essential. The obvious challenges are compounded by the fact that families were wiped out, language barriers exist, and remaining relatives are scattered all over the world.

I am writing this article to reach out to those lawyers in our association who may wish to assist with these endeavors. Currently we are working to identify stolen objects and establishing providence of those works. Once this is accomplished we will need resources: litigators, paralegals, those skilled in locating relatives and myriad other assistance. Through this article, I am attempting to marshal and identify those in our legal community who may be willing to assist, when the time for assistance is ripe. Under HEAR, we only have until January 1, 2027. Any experienced litigator can tell you how working up cases like this can take years.

This initiative has already yielded important results. In addition to helping individual victims, we also are seeking to help entire communities decimated during the WWII period. In January 2019, The Detroit News reported that Jonathan and a Holocaust survivor volunteering at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills discovered thousands of pages of secret Hungarian government documents detailing the theft of famous artwork from countless Jewish families, including pieces now hanging in famous museums.10 With the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., we are now working with a network of volunteers to translate and study these documents, with the goal of seeking the return of thousands of pieces of art and antiquities to their rightful owners.

To reiterate, these cases will require monumental resources by people in every aspect of the legal profession. Experienced litigators will be needed. Inexperienced litigators will be essential. Paralegals’ work will be invaluable. Researchers and those speaking several languages will be needed, and the list goes on. Currently, there is a need for a translator who is fluent in the Hungarian language to review documents. If you know of someone with these skills who is willing to assist, please contact me.  If you wish to be involved in some way in the future, please email me at jparks@jaffelaw.com with your contact information, a brief description of your skills and how you may wish to be involved in the future.

The motto of our association is “Learn. Lead. Succeed.” I cannot think of a nobler and important way members of our association can do so.

More information can be found at https://www.jewishbar.org/holocaustartrecovery/.
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I thank the following two for their assistance with this article: Jonathan H. Schwartz is a partner and member of the litigation group at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss PC. He is a past chair of the Arts, Communications, Entertainment & Sports Section of the State Bar of Michigan, and is currently president and co-founder of the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan (JBAM). Daniel H. Cooke is a third-year law student at Wayne State University, and he recently worked as a summer associate at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss PC.
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Footnotes
1Headapohl, “Metro Detroit – Jewish Population Snapshot,” The Jewish News (September 20, 2018) <https://thejewishnews.com/2018/09/20/metro-detroit-jewish-population-snapshot>. All websites cited in this article were accessed February 28, 2019.
2Breeden, “Art Looted by Nazis Gets a New Space at the Louvre. But Is It Really Home?”, The New York Times (February 8, 2018) <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/08/world/europe/louvre-nazi-looted-art.html> and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution,” <https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/documenting-numbers-of-victims-of-the-holocaust-and-nazi-persecution>.
3The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act of 2016, PL 114-308, § 2(3); 130 Stat 1524.
4Commission for Art Recovery, HEAR Act (March 7, 2018) <http://www.commartrecovery.org/hear-act> and “Can You Hear Me Now?: Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act,” Sheppard Mullin Art Law Blog (April 25, 2017) <https://www.artlawgallery.com/2017/04/articles/changes-in-law/hear-act/#_ftn2>.
5HEAR Act.
6Id., Sec. 5(a).
7Id.
8Id., Sec. 5(c)(1)-(2).
9Id., Sec. 5(a),(c).
10Brand-Williams, “Holocaust Survivor From Hungary Tracks Down Stolen Artwork,” U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 10, 2019) <https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/michigan/articles/2019-02-10/holocaust-survivor-from-hungary-tracks-down-stolen-artwork?fbclid=IwAR0hU3k9JSnY2VynH-dMtL9DUcWFSEV_AQALtAlPjC6yOwzw3CLD4_LNwHI>
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James J. Parks, of Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss PC, is the 86th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

 

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