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Legislation Could Thwart Return Of Holocaust Art


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Many families who lost artwork during the Holocaust have spent decades trying to reclaim their treasures. Now they could face a new obstacle: proposed legislation that would protect American museums from these families' claims. David Maxon, of member station WNYC, has more.

DAVID MAXON, BYLINE: Inside her large, secluded home overlooking a lake in New York's Westchester County, 88-year-old Martha Nierenberg points to walls covered by works painted by friends and unknown painters.

MARTHA NIERENBERG: There is really no great art here.

MAXON: There was a time when Nierenberg's family walls were covered by great art. Nierenberg's grandfather, Baron Maurice Herzog, had one of the largest collections of fine art in Europe before World War II. He had some 2,500 pieces by the likes of Velazquez, Goya and El Greco. Nierenberg shuffles through old photos from her childhood.

NIERENBERG: This was at our home in Hungary. My grandfather's apartment, you know, here. He had like, a museum.

MAXON: She says when the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, that private museum was looted. Her family has spent decades trying to find their art, with little success. Now, a bill making its way through Congress could make it even harder for Nierenberg, and other families, to reclaim stolen art. Here's Nierenberg's lawyer, Charles Goldstein.

CHARLES GOLDSTEIN: The intention of this bill is to impede or prevent claims against art that's on loan from a foreign country, claims that would be made by victims of the Holocaust.

MAXON: The legislation would assure foreign governments that if they loan art to American museums, they will not be subject to claims in U.S. courts. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The proposed legislation does include an exception for artwork taken by the Nazis. However, critics say the legislation is narrowly written and might still block claims on works that were lost in more ambiguous situations, such as forced sales or hurried transfers by fleeing families.]

Foreign museums were scared by an incident in 2004, when the City of Amsterdam lent some paintings to a museum in Houston. Despite existing immunity laws, a U.S. court still allowed a claim for the art.

Another worrying move came from Russia, which halted loans from its museums to the U.S. and last year, took back 37 pieces from a museum in Massachusetts.

DAN MONROE: It is becoming an increasingly difficult issue, in terms of negotiating such loans.

MAXON: Dan Monroe is president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, a group that helped write the bill. He and other supporters say the law would end legal uncertainty, and allow more great art into the U.S.

MONROE: This doesn't preclude any sorts of claims that individuals or nations may have apart from the time that such work is on view in the United States.

MAXON: But Nierenberg's lawyer, Charles Goldstein, says even limited immunity is unacceptable.

GOLDSTEIN: Imagine what it would be like to be like to be a Holocaust victim, to go to a museum - say, in New York, see the paintings that were stolen from your family, and be told that you have no right to go to court to get them back.

MAXON: Martha Nierenberg doesn't believe she will live to see her family's paintings again. She says even if they were returned...

NIERENBERG: I'm sure some, they would have to sell because there are lots of lawyers' fees and stuff.

MAXON: In fact, when Germany returned a Georg Pencz painting in 2010 to the Nierenbergs, the family sold it to help cover legal fees. For Martha Nierenberg, this fight is largely about the principle, though she does point to spot on the wall where she'd like to hang one particular painting - which, by many accounts, now resides in a museum in Budapest. She calls it "the Cranach."

And in a list of her family's disputed works, there is a painting by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. It's called the "Annunciation to Saint Joachim." It shows the saint on his knees in a sheep's pasture, receiving a message from a bright, pink angel.

NIERENBERG: It would be here. This is a nice spot.

MAXON: For NPR News, I'm David Maxon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 30, 2012 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story fails to note that the proposed legislation does include an exception for artwork taken by the Nazis. However, critics say that the legislation is narrowly written and the exception would not provide comfort to families because it may still block claims on art that was lost in more ambiguous situations, such as forced sales or hurried transfers by families who were fleeing.
David Maxon