By Shanti Escalante-De Mattei
New York Governor Kathy Hochul has signed a new law that will require museums to acknowledge artworks that were stolen from Jews by the Nazis. Crucially, the law extends the definition of this kind of theft to include forced sales of art.
“As New Yorkers, we are united in our solemn commitment to Holocaust survivors: We will never forget,” Hochul said in a statement.
The legislation notes that some 600,000 paintings were looted from Jews during World War II.
“The looting was not only designed to enrich the Third Reich but also integral to the Holocaust’s goal of eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture,” the law reads. “Many museums now display this stolen art with no recognition of their provenance.”
The bill specifies that the artworks should be accompanied by a “prominently” placed placard or other form of signage. The legislation was championed by Senators Anna Kaplan and Nily Rozic.
Currently, New York state law requires that works created before 1945 and changed ownership in Europe during the Nazi era need to be registered in the Art Loss Register so victims of looting can look for stolen works.
The bill follows several high-profile losses in the past two decades by heirs who have sued to obtain artworks from New York museums that they said once belonged to their families.
For example, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum filed a joint suit seeking an ownership claim over two works by Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse (1906) and Le Moulin de la Galette (1900), after Julius Schoeps alleged that his uncle sold the works under duress during the war. In 2009, that suit was settled out of court and ended with the museums keeping the works.
Another unrelated restitution suit in 2016 pitted the Metropolitan Museum of Art against the descendants of Paul and Alice Leffmann, who claimed that a Picasso painting called The Actor (1904–05) had been sold under duress. A court ruled in 2019 that the Met could keep that work.
As Gothamist pointed out in a recent article, these new laws do not address works that have been looted outside Europe, such as artifacts stolen during military conflicts like the Cambodian Civil War or during colonial campaigns such as the British-led one that resulted in the Benin Bronzes being stolen.
Two other pieces of legislation supporting Holocaust education and survivors were passed. The first allows the State Education Department to conduct surveys to identify which schools are teaching the required Holocaust history.
“As antisemitism rises across New York and Holocaust survivors age, this new law will ensure that New York students are taught about what happens when hatred goes unchecked,” said assembly member Rozic in a statement.
The other piece of legislation requires the Department of Financial Services to publish a list of banks that waive transfer and processing fees associated with reparations payments.
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