It’s About Time: Heirs Challenge MoMA’s Right to Hold Nazi-Era Paintings

On August 23, 2011, Patricia Cohen of The New York Times examined a restitution claim brought against MoMA by the heirs of George Grosz, an Expressionist painter who fled Nazi Germany in 1933. (“Family’s Claim Against MoMA Hinges on Dates”) Grosz was not Jewish but faced persecution by the regime for his opposition to Hitler and the “degenerate” style of his paintings. He left three of his paintings in the care of his Jewish dealer, Alfred Flechtheim, who in turn fled Germany when the Third Reich Aryanized Jewish businesses.  It remains unclear whether Flechtheim sold the Grosz paintings or they were stolen from  but by the early 1950s, MoMA had purchased all three of them.

MoMA has won several lower court decisions in the case, arguing that the Grosz heirs filed the lawsuit too late under New York State law. The U.S. Supreme court will decide whether to hear the case next month.

MoMA’s determination to hold the Grosz paintings violates the International Council of Museums (ICOM) code of ethics, and international agreements supported by the U.S. government to faciliate restitution of looted and misappropriated Nazi-era art.  But agreements like the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art  merely declare noble intentions; they are non-binding, without the force of law.

Marc Masurovsky, co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, wrote a creative, imagined conversation with Cohen about this issue, clarifying several points from her article and making the case against MoMA’s position. See his blog post here.  (in archives after August 2011)

MoMA could learn from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which earlier this year initiated a settlement with the heirs of Jakob and Rosa Oppenheimer to retain four tapestries that were part of a forced sale in Berlin in 1935.  It’s about time, MoMA.


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