Copyright attorney works to 'reset clock' for art looted during the Holocaust

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Art looted from victims of Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust has driven more than a few plot lines of recent Hollywood films like ‘Woman in Gold,’ starring Helen Mirren as a Jewish woman who, after a protracted court battle, eventually recovers a painting that was stolen from her family during World War II.

But, according to New York copyright attorney Raymond Dowd, what goes on behind the scenes is much more complicated than what’s reflected on the screen.

“It’s an issue that was before the U.S. Senate in June when Helen Mirren and Ronald Lauder testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Nazi looted art,” said Dowd, who was keynote speaker for the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan’s Sept. 14 presentation, “The Holocaust? Legal and Ethical Issues over Nazi Art Looting,” at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.

Lauder, who owns the Neue Galerie in New York City where the painting ‘Woman in Gold,’ is exhibited, represented the World Jewish Restitution Organization at the hearing.

Two months prior to the Senate committee’s public review, Senators Schumer, Blumenthal, Cornyn, and Kruze introduced the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act, to assist Holocaust survivors and their families recover art stolen by the Nazis before, or during, World War II.

Describing the June hearing as an “unusually hopeful example of bipartisanship” Dowd said, “When I speak to the members of the military who have seen the effects of looting antiquities from museums, I often hear, ‘This is one of the reasons why we’re fighting in Iraq. It’s the very same thing allied troops fought for,’” Dowd said.

Dowd said he learned about the art world’s attitude toward works with a murky background when he defended Leon Fischer, an heir to Holocaust victims, in a protracted court battle over title to a drawing.

“I was an Irish Catholic kid who grew up in Brooklyn with friends who all came from persecuted places. But nothing prepared me for the journey I would take when I had all of the evidence in front of me. I wondered, ‘How did the legal community miss that – the robbing of artwork from the Jews?’”

Fischer, who has since died, was a New York stamp dealer, and an heir of Fritz and Lilly Grünbaum, Austrian Jews whose art collection vanished after they were murdered by the Nazis.

“When a guy named Leon Fischer came to my office about a dispute over one artwork. I thought, ‘How hard can that be?’

It turned out it was harder than any of the parties anticipated.

Beginning in 2005, Dowd litigated claims by Fischer and another relative, Milos Varva, against art collector and philanthropist David Bakalar, owner of the drawing by Egon Schiele, “Woman Seated with Bent Left Leg,” one of the many pieces of art that were part of the Grünbaum collection.

“The judge would only allow us to litigate one artwork,” Dowd said in an e-mail. “We tried to counterclaim against all of the artworks in a class action, but the judge rejected that.”

In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit allowed Bakalar to keep the drawing, based on a laches argument, a decision that Dowd said he found incredulous.

“This drawing was taken from a Jew by a Nazi while he was in a concentration camp,” Dowd said. “The judge said the Jews should have protected their artwork – but it just so happens that the entire family was murdered. It’s outrageous.”

Despite the 2012 decision, Dowd is optimistic about the HEAR legislation pending in Congress.

“I’m hopeful about the initiatives before Congress to reset the clock for Jewish families,” Dowd said. “It’s important for institutions to research their collections and start telling the truth,” Dowd said referring to actions that have involved American museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Toledo Museum of Art.

The resolution of the issues arising from art confiscated by the Nazis will not be won in courtrooms, said Dowd, but rather by developing an historical awareness through scholarship and research.

 “This is an important historical question,” Dowd said. “It’s not just a Jewish question. It is a current question of ethics that needs to be systematically addressed, in part, by examining a tax structure that grants loopholes to art collectors. There has to be more transparency.”

Institutions and collectors that accept art with questionable origins are betting that potential Jewish claimants will be dissuaded from pursuing claims because of the way institutions stereotype the Jewish people, according to Dowd.

“They think, ‘Jews love learning – they are the ‘People of the Book,’ so they are not going to sue universities and museums,” Dowd said. “This goes to the heart of why there is a blind spot. This is the challenge.”

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