New York museums to display the history of Nazi-looted artworks
Hughes Hubbard & Reed, New York
On 10 August 2022, New York Governor Kathy Hochul approved an amendment to New York Education Law Section 233-AA. According to this new legislation, New York museums that display artworks once stolen during the Nazi era in Europe are now required to label these works acknowledging that information.
In recent decades, leading actors in the international art world have made repeated – albeit sometimes insufficient – efforts to raise awareness and create transparency around Nazi-looted art. Among these actors, museum councils and associations around the world have published non-binding guidelines for their local institutions. In the United States, the Association of Art Museums Directors (AAMD) Task Force on the Spoliation of Art during the Nazi/World War II Era (1933 –1945) published a report in June 1998 that encouraged museums to create transparent databases that include information on artworks stolen during the Nazi era.
In November 1999, the American Association of Museums (AAM) shared its Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects During the Nazi Era (the ‘Guidelines’). The Guidelines address how American museums can resolve provenance disputes and encourage museums to ‘make serious efforts to allocate time and funding to conduct research on covered objects in their collections whose provenance is incomplete or uncertain.’
Only five days before the New York law came into effect, the Arts Council England released a practical guide on restitution and repatriation for English museums. The Arts Council’s Practical Guide suggests that English museums include ‘physical and digital labels and interpretation panels’ to ‘reflect the true and full provenance of the item and any relevant historical context straightforwardly and sensitively.’
On the legislative plane, the US’s 2016 Holocaust Expropriation Art Recovery Act (HEAR) created a uniform six-year statute of limitations for ownership claims involving artworks lost during the Nazi era. In considering the HEAR bill, the US Congress studied the history and effectiveness of prior efforts by the US to ensure fair adjudication of Nazi-looted art claims, including the Washington Conference Principles, the Terezin Declaration, the standards adopted by the AAM, the Holocaust Victims Redress Act, and the US Holocaust Assets Commission Act of 1998.
In January 2021, State Senator Anna M Kaplan introduced a bill to amend New York Education Law Section 233-AA related to ‘Property of other museums’. This section governs the handling of acquisitions, loans and gifts by all museums in New York (except Albany’s New York State Museum). Before the bill was introduced, Section 233-AA(6)(d) already required New York museums to send the Art Loss Register ‘or any successor organization having similar purposes’ a ‘copy of all notices […] pertaining to property in the form of identifiable works of art known to have been’ created before World War II and to have:
‘changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era.’ New Subdivision 15 to Section 233-AA provides that ‘[e]very museum which has on display any identifiable works of art known to have been created before nineteen hundred forty-five and which changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means in Europe during the Nazi era (nineteen hundred thirty-three–nineteen hundred forty-five) shall, to the extent practicable, place a placard or other signage acknowledging such information along with such display.’
In their justification for the bill, its drafters explained that ‘the Nazis looted some 600,000 paintings from Jewish people during World War II, as part of the Third Reich’s crimes committed to eliminating all vestiges of Jewish identity and culture. Many eventually made their way to museums in New York, and museums displayed these stolen art pieces with no recognition of or transparency around their origins.’ In a press release, the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Bruce Ratner, thanked Governor Hochul and the State Legislature for this new law. He emphasised the importance of teaching and learning about the Holocaust to commemorate its victims, but also to help ‘create a forum for examining the history and evolution of antisemitism at a time where we continue to witness xenophobia, unfolding genocides, the ongoing refugee crisis, and threats to democratic values’
Senator Kaplan’s legislation passed with unanimous votes in the State Senate on 9 March 2022 and in the State Assembly on 18 May 2022. The law came into immediate effect on 10 August. New York museum visitors can now expect to view Nazi-looted art in the light of its history. The state legislation introduces these artworks’ tragic provenance as an essential component in understanding the object itself.
 Guidelines Concerning the Unlawful Appropriation of Objects during the Nazi-Era, p 5, American Association of Museums (Nov 1999, amended Apr 2001).
 Id, p 5.
 HEAR Act, Pub L No 114-308 (2016).
 S Rept 114-394, p 6 (2016).
 NY Education Law, s 233-AA(6)(d).
 Sen Kaplan’s Sponsor Memo, S117A, Amd s 233-AA, Ed L (2019–20).
 ‘Governor Hochul Signs Legislation to Honor and Support Holocaust Survivors in Educational, Cultural, and Financial Institutions’, NY State Governor Kathy Hochul (10 Aug 2022).