Blumenthal aims to help families who lost art to Nazis

Washington – Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Ted Cruz rarely see eye to eye on issues, but they are partners in an effort to change federal law to help victims of the great art theft – the massive Nazi confiscations during World War II.

“The time is long past to return the ill-gotten gains of that unspeakable horror,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal co-chaired a hearing Tuesday on the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery, or HEAR, Act, that featured family members of those whose art was stolen. Also appearing as a witness was Helen Mirren, the British actress in the movie “Woman in Gold” who dramatized Maria Altmann’s efforts to recover lost family art – including a portrait of her aunt by Gustav Klimt.

The Woman in Gold, a 1907 gold leaf painting by artist Gustav Klimt. One woman's struggle to have the stolen work returned was the subject of the movie "Woman in Gold."

The Woman in Gold, a 1907 gold leaf painting by artist Gustav Klimt. One woman’s struggle to have the stolen work returned was the subject of the movie “Woman in Gold.”

“Restoring lost art is a moral imperative,” she said.

Blumenthal said the art thefts not only robbed victims of material possessions, but resulted in “a loss of heritage and background” as family heirlooms and history disappeared.

The HEAR Act would reset the statute of limitations on art-theft claims, giving families six years to pursue claims once looted items are identified. The bipartisan legislation – co-sponsored by Blumenthal, Cruz and Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., would pre-empt state statutes of limitations.

The legislation says “numerous victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs have taken legal action to recover Nazi-confiscated art,” but the lawsuits “face significant procedural obstacles partly due to state statutes of limitations, which typically bar claims within some limited number of years from either the date of the loss or the date that the claim should have been discovered.”

According to the Commission for Art Recovery, an international organization founded in 1997 and affiliated with the World Jewish Congress. Nazis looted 20 percent of the Western art collections in Europe during World War II.

“Tens of thousands of items remain displaced, missing or destroyed,” the organization said.

Locating the stolen goods, which often were displayed in museums in Europe and the United States, and locating documentation proving ownership after World War II ravaged Europe and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, proved difficult for many. So did the cost of lawsuits aimed at retrieving looted art.

Philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder, chairman of the council of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said, “There are museums here in the United States who are waiting out the clock, waiting for statutes of limitations to expire,” to purchase stolen art.

Blumenthal said many U.S. museums are “complicit” in the Nazi looting.

“They have indirectly aided and abetted the plundering of the Nazis,” he said.

Although most witnesses support the HEAR Act, one said her organization has not taken a position on the legislation – Ms. Monica Dugot, international director of restitution at Christie’s Inc.

Dugot said the auction house vets all art it trades very carefully, especially pre-1945 artwork, using internationally adopted principles to research all objects that may be looted art.

When a claim does arise, Dugot said Christie’s follows a “preferred approach,” which is to advocate for a negotiated settlement of the case, rather than by “costly and time-consuming litigation.

The hearing drew considerable attention, and a couple of new Senate sponsors, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

But the star was clearly Mirren.

“You are one of my favorite people,” Hatch told Mirren. “You are one of everybody’s favorite people. You are a terrific actress.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also praised Mirren, telling her how much she enjoyed “Women in Gold” and that she watched it twice.