Jan 11th 2017

How the HEAR Act Just Made Holocaust Art Restitution History

By Rayah Levy, Art Market Expert, CEO: ArtéQuesta and AOHFA

For years Holocaust survivors and their heirs have had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to recover art stolen from them during World War II. In many cases, looted works are now in museums and private collections, making the struggle for restitution even more complex.

But on December 16th, President Obama signed the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act into law, a victory for those seeking Nazi-Looted Art, which will help ease those challenges.

"The HEAR Act will end an enduring injustice for Holocaust victims and their families." – President Obama

The bipartisan legislation, passed earlier last month by the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, allows those who lost art between 1933 and 1945 due to Nazi persecution to take legal action, subject to some limitations, within six years of the time they locate where the art resides. This will significantly help those who have come up against statutes of limitations that prohibit them for pursuing claims. The limitations of the new legislation are currently being reviewed and the terms will hopefully continue to improve to help those families who were affected by Nazi persecution.

In a year known for divisive politics, the act also brought together both sides of the aisle. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic leader, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican and former presidential candidate, teamed up on the bill, along with other colleagues. Earlier this year, Dame Helen Mirren, who starred in a movie about Holocaust art restitution called “Woman in Gold”, testified at a Senate judiciary hearing in support of the law.

From left to right: Dr. Agnes Peresztegi, President, Commission for Art Recovery; Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY); Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, Chairman Of The Council, World Jewish Restitution Organization; Dame Helen Mirren; Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) Photo credit: Gabriella Demczuk

While those with claims in the US celebrate the law, it still leaves restitution seekers in Europe with little help. Just recently, the Polish government gave those with claims on more than 2,600 properties in Warsaw just six months to respond after those properties are listed publicly in a newspaper, which is expected to happen soon. Not all the properties belonged to Jews, but it is believed that many of them did.

The assets were previously claimed in 1945, but the communists basically froze the claims. The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) has compiled all those old claims into a database to make it easier for claimants to appeal, and in this way, the organization hopes to facilitate a difficult process.

Advocates for claimants believe the Polish government should make the process easier, not only in terms of deadline but also what documentation is required. Many with claims do not live in Poland, don’t speak the language and will find the process of appeal grueling. Few survivors have the time to wade through the administrative red tape.

“We're facing a situation where, in the next few years, we will be living in a world where there won't be Holocaust survivors. It's a population, obviously, that's very elderly, very sick and passing away very rapidly. So we think it's a matter of justice and morality to address and to conclude this issue before that last of that generation disappears.” – Gideon Taylor, chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization to NPR.

Back in 1997, Philip Saunders, editor of Trace, the stolen art register, estimated that up to 100,000 pieces of art remain missing or in the wrong hands.

Agents of Humanity in the Fine Arts (AOHFA), a forthcoming non-profit whose aim it is to recover art, artifacts and patrimony of cultures that cannot protect their own national treasures, is now working to form relationships with other organizations to bring attention to this issue. AOHFA is developing innovative educational tools and cultural materials to be used by academic institutions and museums. If you or anyone you know is interested in helping to recover and restitute artworks lost or looted by the Nazis, please contact us directly.

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