State Court Cites its own Statute of Limitations to Deny Nazi Art Claim

We have posted on a number of recent cases involving Nazi-stolen art and have noted that U.S. courts are generally sympathetic to claims by heirs of the original owners of the artworks. Nevertheless, in a recent decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the heir of a Viennese Jewish doctor was deemed to have no right to an Oskar Kokoschka painting because she failed to submit a claim within the three-year statute of limitation under Massachusetts law.

In Museum Of Fine Arts, Boston v. Seger-Thomschitz, the claimant is the sole surviving heir of Dr. Oskar Reichel, a patron of the arts in early twentieth century Vienna. In 1914, Reichel purchased the painting, Two Nudes (Lovers), which is a self-portrait of the artist in an embrace with Alma Mahler (the widow of composer Gustav Mahler). In 1938, after the German annexation of Austria, Reichel was forced to sell the work, and it is not clear whether Reichel ever received payment for the sale. The painting ended up in the collection of the MFA which has displayed the painting for many years. The claimant did not make a formal claim to the MFA until 2007.

The court ruled that the claim to the painting was without merit because the claimant had not brought a claim within three years of discovery of the existence of the painting. The MFA had publicized the existence of the painting for many years, and the claimant had known by 2003, at the latest, that the painting had originally been owned by Dr. Reichel and had she conducted a minimum amount of research she would have learned that the painting was possessed by the MFA. The court dismissed the claimant’s argument that federal policy favoring the return of Nazi-stolen art overrode Massachusetts statute of limitations because the federal policy was general and did not conflict with clear state law.

Thanks to Mendel Simon for his contribution to this post.

If you have any questions regarding this case or WCM’s Fine Art practice, please e-mail Mike Bono at mbono@wcmlaw.com