Restitution: why there should be no time limit


'Albertina' by Torsten Mangner. The Albertina Museum in Vienna. Full credit at end of article

On March 30, The Art Newspaper reported that Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the director of The Albertina Museum in Vienna, has called for a time limit on restitution claims in relation to art stolen by the Nazis.

Arguing that the time limit should be for between 30-40 years more, Schröder suggested that if no time limit was set, one might as well ask why restitution cannot be claimed for works stolen in previous wars.

He also pointed out that since signing up to the Washington Agreement and subsequently passing restitution laws in 1998, Austria has returned 50,000 pieces of stolen art.

Rayah Levy, founder and director of Mill Valley, CA-based fine art investment company ArteQuesta, begs to differ.

“It is my firm belief that Schröder was in error when he made these remarks,” she says. “The first reason for my disagreement stems from the nature of the Nazi looting that took place in the war. Widely regarded as a form of persecution at the time, many Jewish art dealers were forced to sell their pieces of art under duress from the Nazi regime.”

She argues that if it can be proven that a piece of art was once looted, justice must prevail over convenience.

“Wherever viable, any available options to undo wrongs committed by this oppressive regime must be undertaken so that these artworks are returned to their rightful owners,” she says.

Secondly, she believes that time should not be the determining factor.

“Either justice is justice, or it is not. If we refuse claimants the right to take back what is lawfully theirs, we are essentially robbing them again. The nature of art is such that it evokes powerful and lasting bonds between it and its owner, bonds that will not merely subside over time. This cannot and should not be overlooked.”

She points to the debate between the Greek government and the British Museumover the 5th Century Elgin Marbles, taken over 200 years ago, as further evidence of this fact.

She adds that restitution should have begun swiftly, once the war ended, but it is a relatively modern phenomenon.

“Some say up to 650,000 pieces of art were stolen by the Nazis and yet not nearly all of them have been returned. The Washington Agreement, which Schröder points to, was written in 1998, 53 years after the war ended and as recently as 2012, 1,280 pieces of fine art were recovered from an apartment in Munich.

“Who is to say more discoveries like this will not be made in the future? And how can we put a limit on restitution if the rightful owners of the artworks had no possible way of knowing the pictures still existed or had no legal right of recourse? Either justice is justice, or it is not. Time should not stand in the way and there should be no limits on restitution.”

Image Courtesy of Torsten Mangner under creative commons license