Can 'Woman in Gold' bill liberate 'final prisoners of World War II'?

A Senate hearing discussed a bill to help families of Holocaust victims reclaim artwork stolen by the Nazis. The bill is supported by Jewish advocacy groups and Helen Mirren, star of the film 'Woman in Gold.'

Gary Cameron/Reuters
Actress Dame Helen Mirren (r.) greets Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York (l.), former US Ambassador to Austria Ronald Lauder (c.), and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut (2nd r.) before giving her testimony at a joint Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing to discuss legislation to 'facilitate the return of stolen artwork by the Nazis during the Holocaust' on June 7.

A movie star, four Republicans, and two New England Democrats have teamed up to aid a cause that everyone agrees with but that has been tricky to implement so far – the return of artwork stolen by Nazis to Holocaust victims and their families.

A Senate hearing on Tuesday discussed a bill giving Holocaust victims and their families six years after finding their artwork in museums or private collections to sue for its recovery, bypassing any statutes of limitations.

No one has objected to the bill’s moral grounding. The 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, the 2009 Terezin Declaration, and an international code for museums already assure a return of the stolen artwork now in the custody of museums, private collections, and governments.

But until now, these agreements have lacked the teeth for enforcement.

“Two-thirds of the [50] nations that have endorsed agreements regarding research, publicity and claims for Nazi-era looted art have done little or nothing to implement those pacts,” according to a 2014 report by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization. 

This bill, sponsored by a bipartisan team of senators from Connecticut, New York, South Dakota, Texas, and Utah, hopes to create new momentum to return the artwork.

Museums, including "the leading institutions in our nation ... have been complicit in this injustice," said co-sponsor Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut at the hearing. "They have indirectly aided and abetted the thuggery of the Nazis."

The issue received public attention last year with the film “Woman in Gold,” in which a woman successfully fights the courts to retrieve a painting of her aunt from the Austrian government. The film’s star, Dame Helen Mirren, spoke at the hearing to support to the cause.

"Art lost in the Holocaust is not just important for its aesthetic and cultural value," Dame Helen told lawmakers. "Restoring physical parts of lost heritage to a Holocaust victim and their families is a moral imperative."

She continued, "For me and many families fighting, art restitution has little to do with potential financial gains.... It gives Jewish people – and other victims of the Nazi terror – the opportunity to reclaim their history, their culture, their memories and, most importantly, their families.”

By resetting the statutes of limitations, this law hopes to erode the legal defenses levied by museums and private collections that have made reclamation efforts prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

“I wish this legislation had happened 10 or 20 years ago, but the fact is that it’s happened, it’s going to have a major effect on the future,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder told the Senate panel Tuesday. “And many works of art – I use the expression ‘the final prisoners of World War II’ – will finally find their rightful owners.”

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