Art Law: Frankfurt Court Allows Limitation Defence in Looted Art Case

von Peter Bert

When the news about the Munich art find in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment broke, a legal issue that so far had been of interest only to a small community of lawyers or legal scholars gained prominence: the application of the statute of limitation to restitution claims for looted art. As the law stood, restitution claims against Gurlitt would, in all likelihood, have become time-barred. When the Gurlitt case made headlines worldwide, all of a sudden, politicians paid attention to that rather esoteric question. The newly appointed Bavarian Minister of Justice even initiated legislation to deal with the issue. But the topic disappeared from the political stage as quickly as it had made its appearance when it became clear that Cornelius Gurlitt was not going to invoke the limitation defence. The Bavarian law-making initiative fell into oblivion.

A recent decision by the District Court (Landgericht) Frankfurt shows that the underlying issues remains of relevance, and if the law has to be changed, it is for Parliament to do so.

The facts of the Frankfurt case, in a nutshell were as follows: The heir of Robert Graetz brought a claim against the current owner of a Max Pechstein painting, depicting surveys with flowers dated 1918. Robert Graetz was a Jewish textile manufacturer and art collector. He he was deported from Berlin to the Warsaw ghetto in April 1942 and subsequently murdered in Auschwitz. The claimant believed the predecessors of the defendant had acquired the artwork in 1940/1941, when the Graetz family were forced to sell their villa in Berlin’s elegant Grunewald neighbourhood and most of their art collection, and to move into a Judenhaus prior to their deportation.

The defendant challenged the alleged provenance of the painting, and invoked the limitation defence ...

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