Since the end of the Second World War, cultural institutions worldwide have tried to deal with how to approach art stolen or appropriated by the Nazis. Some museums have been very open about acknowledging the problematic provenance of some of their pieces, returning the works to their original owners when requested. But still, many want to sweep all that under the rug. Sometimes, a museum will deny that paintings in their collections were ever stolen or looted in the first place. Notably, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts did just that last year. But now, this won’t really be too much of an issue for museums in the state of New York because of a new law signed by Governor Kathy Hochul.
“An act to amend the education law, in relation to notice of art stolen during the Nazi era in Europe” was introduced in the New York State Senate in January 2021 by state senator Anna Kaplan. It specifies that museums in New York must disclose which works in their collections “changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means in Europe during the Nazi era”. This will be done through information cards or placards accompanying the works, and apply to the works in New York that meet the law’s requirements, like Republican Automatons by George Grosz (kept at the Museum of Modern Art), Le Moulin de la Galette by Pablo Picasso (at the Guggenheim), and Portrait of Tilla Durieux by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). According to Senator Kaplan, “With the history of the Holocaust being so important to pass on to the next generation, it’s vital that we be transparent and ensure that anyone viewing artwork stolen by the Nazis understand where it came from and its role in history.” The bill made its way through both houses of the New York State Legislature this year, with Governor Hochul signing it into law at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage on August 10th. This is actually one of three new laws signed by the governor on the same day regarding Holocaust education and reparation payments for Holocaust survivors.
While the new laws certainly will do more good than harm, the language appears exclusive. The New York law will only apply to any of those artworks whose ownership was affected by Nazi action and policy. There are about 600,000 pieces of art that fall under this categorization. But art stolen or appropriated because of armed conflict or instability exists beyond the Holocaust. Furthermore, the law only talks about acknowledgment instead of next steps like restitution. Perhaps the New York law can be a first step or a model for future action regarding stolen or looted art.