Restitution: copyright attorney works to reset clock for art taken by Nazis


by Linda Laderman
Legal News

Art looted from victims of Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust has driven more than a few plot lines of recent Hollywood films like ‘Woman in Gold,’ starring Helen Mirren as a Jewish woman who, after a protracted court battle, eventually recovers a painting that was stolen from her family during World War II.

But, according to New York copyright attorney Raymond Dowd, what goes on behind the scenes is much more complicated than what is reflected on the screen.

“It’s an issue that was before the U.S. Senate in June when Helen Mirren and Ronald Lauder testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Nazi looted art,” Dowd said.

Lauder, who owns the Neue Galerie in New York City where the painting ‘Woman in Gold,’ is exhibited, represented the World Jewish Restitution Organization at the hearing.

Two months prior to the Senate committee’s public review, Senators Schumer, Blumenthal, Cornyn, and Kruze introduced the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act, to assist Holocaust survivors and their families recover art stolen by the Nazis before, or during, World War II.

Describing the June hearing as an “unusually hopeful example of bipartisanship” Dowd said, “When I speak to the members of the military who have seen the effects of looting antiquities from museums, I often hear, ‘This is one of the reasons why we’re fighting in Iraq. It’s the very same thing allied troops fought for,’” Dowd said.

Dowd said he learned about the art world’s attitude toward works with a murky background when he defended Leon Fischer, an heir to Holocaust victims, in a protracted court battle over title to a drawing.

“I was an Irish Catholic kid who grew up in Brooklyn with friends who all came from persecuted places. But nothing prepared me for the journey I would take when I had all of the evidence in front of me. I wondered, ‘How did the legal community miss that – the robbing of artwork from the Jews?’”

Fischer, who has since died, was a New York stamp dealer, and an heir of Fritz and Lilly Grünbaum, Austrian Jews whose art collection vanished after they were murdered by the Nazis.

“When a guy named Leon Fischer came to my office about a dispute over one artwork. I thought, ‘How hard can that be?’

It turned out that it was harder than any of the parties anticipated.

Beginning in 2005, Dowd litigated claims by Fischer and another relative, Milos Varva, against art collector and philanthropist David Bakalar, owner of the drawing by Egon Schiele, “Woman Seated with Bent Left Leg,” one of the many pieces of art that were part of the Grünbaum collection.

“The judge would only allow us to litigate one artwork,” Dowd said in an e-mail. “We tried to counterclaim against all of the artworks in a class action, but the judge rejected that.”

In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit allowed Bakalar to keep the drawing, based on a laches argument, a decision that Dowd said he found incredulous.

“This drawing was taken from a Jew by a Nazi while he was in a concentration camp,” Dowd said. “The judge said the Jews should have protected their artwork – but it just so happens that the entire family was murdered. It’s outrageous.”

Despite the 2012 decision, Dowd is optimistic about the HEAR legislation pending in Congress.

“I’m hopeful about the initiatives before Congress to reset the clock for Jewish families,” Dowd said. “It’s important for institutions to research their collections and start telling the truth,” Dowd said referring to actions that have involved American museums, including the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Toledo Museum of Art.

The resolution of the issues arising from art confiscated by the Nazis will not be won in courtrooms, said Dowd, but rather by developing an historical awareness through scholarship and research.

“This is an important historical question,” Dowd said. “It’s not just a Jewish question. It is a current question of ethics that needs to be systematically addressed, in part, by examining a tax structure that grants loopholes to art collectors. There has to be more transparency.”

Institutions and collectors that accept art with questionable origins are betting that potential Jewish claimants will be dissuaded from pursuing claims because of the way institutions stereotype the Jewish people, according to Dowd.

“They think, ‘Jews love learning – they are the ‘People of the Book,’ so they are not going to sue universities and museums,” Dowd said. “This goes to the heart of why there is a blind spot. This is the challenge.”   

Program to focus on legal issues surrounding  ‘Nazi Art Looting’

By Linda Laderman, Legal News

Raymond Dowd will be the keynote speaker for the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan’s presentation, “Profiting from the Holocaust? Legal and Ethical Issues over Nazi Art Looting,” on Sept. 14 at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. The lecture begins at 7 p.m.

Along with Professor Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University, Dowd (see article at left) will address issues stemming from the claims of Holocaust survivors and their families, who have fought to return art taken from them during Hitler’s attempt to permanently purge Jews from Europe.

Dowd’s appearance here is the result of efforts by Detroit area attorneys Rick Herman and co-chair of the event, Jonathan Schwartz, to bring the issue to a local forum.

Herman, who also practices copyright law, met Dowd through their affiliation with the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. “Since I met Dowd, I’ve become interested in the issues related to art looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust,” Herman said. “We would talk for hours about the issue so I asked him if he’d be interested in doing something here.”

Herman said his wife, former Oakland Circuit Court Judge Debbie Tyner and a docent at the Holocaust Memorial Center, provided additional motivation to host Dowd’s talk.

“We started having conversations because of my interest and my wife’s interest,” Herman said. “I thought this was a good mix – we could pull it off.”

For Herman, the issue of looted art extends has relevance, not only on a religious level, but also on an ethical and philosophical plane. “I’m not doing this just out of a deep hearted religious sense, but because of a deep rooted humanistic sense,” Herman said.

According to Herman, Dowd is expected to give his audience a moral view of what happens when victims of war-related atrocities lose ownership of what is rightfully theirs.

“Copyright law is about ownership and this is about ownership,” Herman said, adding, “My hope is that the audience takes it back to the community to discuss with others. I know people here are hungry for more information. It’s important to know – we don’t want to forget any aspect of that terrible time.”

Registration is available at .