A Senate Judiciary subcommittee heard testimony Tuesday on a bill, introduced by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas in April, that would extend the statute of limitations on claims to artwork stolen by the Nazis.
The bill, called the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, would “allow civil claims or causes of action to recover artwork or other cultural property unlawfully lost because of persecution during the Nazi era, or for damages for the taking or detaining of such artwork or cultural property, to be commenced within six years after the claimant’s actual discovery of: (1) the identity and location of the artwork or cultural property, and (2) information or facts sufficient to indicate that the claimant has a claim for a possessory interest in the artwork or cultural property that was unlawfully lost.”
The effort to recover art, jewelry and other property large and small that was confiscated by the Nazis has brought together a cast from Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Ted Cruz to celebrity Helen Mirren.
“When the Jewish people were dispossessed of their art, they lost some of their heritage,” said Mirren said at the hearing. “Memories were taken along with the art, and to have no memories is like having no family, and that is why art restitution is so imperative.”
Mirren, who has been active supporter of the rights of Holocaust victims and their families to recover stolen artwork, said she is seeking to “do my part to try to open the eyes of others and help make people aware of the sad fact that – more than 70 years later – victims of the Holocaust and their families are still contemplating whether to seek restitution for what was stolen from them and lost under the most horrible of circumstances.”
At the hearing Tuesday, Cruz noted the timing of the hearing, falling the day after the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Texas senator also noted that in addition to the unspeakable horrors of the Nazi death camps that the liberating Allied forces uncovered, “they also discovered, hidden away in churches and underground mines, countless works of art and other valuable cultural property that the Nazis had taken from their victims,” Cruz said. “These stolen treasures were not simply the spoils of war; they were the fruits of a policy that stretched back well before the war to 1933 when Hitler and the Nazi Party took power.”
Richard Blumenthal, the ranking Democrat at the joint Judiciary subcommittee hearing, said it was important that Congress “speaks on behalf of justice.”
“The destruction and looting and theft of this art was more than pilfering of property, it was an act of inhumanity,” the Connecticut senator said.
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said he was prepared to put the artwork recovery legislation on the committee agenda when the bipartisan group of sponsors says it is ready.
Ronald Lauder, of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, also testified at the hearing.
“What makes this particular crime even more despicable is that this art theft, probably the greatest in history, was continued by governments, museums and many knowing collectors in the decades following the war,” Lauder said. “This was the dirty secret of the post-war art world, and people who should have known better, were part of it.
“In many cases, legal barriers like arbitrary statutes of limitations were imposed on families that had not been aware that their father’s painting was hanging in a private home or state museum.
“Make no mistake … this crime continues to stain the world of art.”