Legislation to Aid Holocaust-Era Restitution Cases Passes Congress

NEW YORK -

A bipartisan bill that seeks to make it easier for the heirs of owners of artwork stolen by the Nazis to reclaim their long-lost property has unanimously passed both houses of Congress. The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act (HEAR) aims to extend statute of limitations laws, which the bill’s authors say will provide a fair opportunity for claimants to have their cases heard.

“These lawsuits face significant procedural obstacles, partly due to state statutes of limitations, which typically bar claims within some limited number of years from either the date of the loss or the date that the claim should have been discovered,” reads part of the bill. “In some cases, this means that the claims expired before World War II even ended.”

Although looting of this art and other property dates back to the time of World War II, in many cases documentation has only recently become available to the heirs of these items. In the last two years, litigation has stepped up. The controversy surrounding the Gurlitt art trove, a large and valuable collection containing many works looted by the Nazis that was discovered in Munich in 2012, has garnered much media coverage and brought heightened attention to the issue. Many legal efforts by the families of Holocaust victims and survivors to retrieve works from museums and private collections, mostly in Europe, have been ongoing.

After years of lobbying by representatives of survivors and claimants, as well as several Jewish organizations, Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Ted Cruz (R-TX), incoming Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced the present bill this past spring. It passed a House vote last Wednesday and was approved by the Senate in a late-night session Friday.

“Today, we delivered a long-overdue victory for the families of Holocaust victims,” Sen. Cruz said. “This bipartisan legislation rights a terrible injustice and sends a clear signal that America will continue to root out every noxious vestige of the Nazi regime.”

HEAR establishes a six-year statute of limitations that would only commence at the time of “actual discovery,” when heirs gain solid information as to the locations of the artwork in question and establish evidence for their claim.

“While we can never right the wrong of the Holocaust, it is our moral duty to ensure that the survivors and heirs are given the opportunity to bring their family heirlooms, including stolen artwork, back home. Decades after the Holocaust, survivors and families of victims are still identifying possessions that have been missing all these years,” said Sen. Schumer.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act of 1976 allows for plaintiffs to file suits against Germany and other nations in American courts under certain circumstances. The HEAR act would open the door for many more cases to be pursued under this law.

It is highly expected that the president will sign the bill, particularly given its unanimous passage.