Bill to Shield International Art Loans Gains in Senate

New York Times 16 September 2016
By Doreen Carvajal

Legislation to safeguard international art loans will be taken up by the full Senate after years of criticism and complaints that the bill amounts to protection for plundered works.

On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee, with bipartisan support, approved the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act. It would extend added protections to shield works from seizure while on loan for exhibitions in the United States.

American museum directors and their professional association have argued that foreign museums in countries like Russia are more reluctant to make loans because of costly ownership battles that could entangle foreign powers.

“It will help ensure that foreign governments are not discouraged from loaning works,” said Christine Anagnos, the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which supports the bill. Those art exchanges, she said, enable Americans “to experience works that they otherwise might not have a chance to see.”

The association has been the driving force since 2012 for such a bill, but the legislation stalled because of criticism that it could block efforts by owners to recover looted treasures that land in the United States. In the past, politicians sought to allay those concerns by exempting from the legislation any valuables taken by the Nazis in World War II.

Restitution groups are satisfied that the latest version exempts the descendants of the owners of art looted in World War II because it will not shield works looted from 1933 to 1945 by the German military or its allies. Also included is an exemption for works seized after 1900 by a foreign government against “members of a targeted group.”

Other groups, though, contend that the new bill offers significant new protections to Russia, because it could be argued that specific groups were not targeted when art was appropriated as government property during the Bolshevik Revolution.

“That’s a definition of genocide, and you could argue in court that the Russian Federation never committed genocide,” said Lang Eric Sundby, the president of the Holocaust Remembrance and Restitution Foundation, an educational group based in Oklahoma.

Russia has blocked art loans to the United States since 2010, fearing that works could be seized as a form of ransom because of a continuing legal battle in the United States with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement over an archive of 40,000 books and manuscripts in the Russian government’s possession.

Chabad had sued for the archive in Russian court, but lost. The bill’s opponents contend that it will aid the Russians by “allowing exhibits of looted artworks and cultural property within the U.S., with no ability for a domestic claim to be made before U.S. courts,” Mr. Sundby said.

Legal protections already exist for art loans from foreign countries, but museums sought more safeguards after a federal court ruling in a 2005 case found that while those protections can prevent outright seizures, they do not block claimants from filing lawsuits to recover artworks.

The ruling followed a lawsuit by the heirs of the abstract painter Kazimir Malevich, who sought to recover paintings from the Stedelijk in Amsterdam while they were on loan for an American exhibition. The Dutch museum believed its State Department waiver protected the works from seizure. But the judge ruled that the family could still sue.

Ms. Anagnos said she could not predict how the bill would fare in the legislative process. Opponents have said that the bill now has broader political support and that they expect it will pass easily out of the Senate for a House vote.

“It’s a benefit for new material for museums,” said Pierre Ciric, an opponent of the bill and a New York lawyer who has pursued looted-art claims in the United States and France. “Attendance is down in U.S. museums, and they need this.”
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