Georgina Adam of the Art Newspaper had an article last week about some of the potential driving forces behind recent repatriation litigation. Pictured here is Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I" (1907), recently repatriated after binding arbitration found Maria Altmann the rightful of this and four other works.
The increasing number of Nazi repatriation claims, and the booming art market lead to the possibility that not all the parties involved are motivated by high-minded ideals. As Federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff noted during his ruling dismissing a claim over a Picasso, "[art auctions are] all guided by their belief in and beauty...though one might suspect that this is just a fight about money". In her piece Adam labels some of these opportunistic lawyers "Nazi bounty hunters,"as they are actively seeking war loot. She references Washington lawyer Willi Korte who has been approached by venture capitalists prepared invest $1 million in the hopes that it would lead to a successful restitution claim.
It seems some lawyers are working backwards. They consult art historians about what works might have been looted, and then search for heirs who may want to bring claims. Jost von Trott, a Berlin lawyer, who specializes in this type of research says to the Art Newspaper
It might be that while doing research in these matters, one of the historians [I work with] comes across a further name of another Jewish family who lost property during the Nazi period. If the researchers find another name in the archives, then they or we could contact them as well and see if we can help in recovering lost objects.
Initially, I don't see anything wrong with the work von Trott describes here. It seems quite a valuable service. Consider though that these firms charge as much as 40% to 50% of the sale price of a work for a successful recovery, while there is no charge if the claim is unsuccessful. Other claims beside the recent Picasso dismissal have been criticized as opportunistic and quickly dismissed as well. A $1.8 billion class action suit was brought by the Association of Holocaust Victims for Restitution of Artwork and Masterpieces against Sotheby's.
Though there are certainly clear cases where restitution is called for, some of these cases stretch the limits of the law, and are causing unnecessary and costly litigation for owners of these works. The idea of venture capitalists seeking out an attorney and urging him to pursue research on potential claimants strikes me a particularly unpleasant though, and strongly cuts against the whole nature of restitution claims.