Jun 1, 2009

MFA Boston Prevails in Nazi-era Declaratory Judgment

Kokoschka_TwoNudes.jpg The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has prevailed in its suit against Dr. Claudia Seger-Tomschitz, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston v. Seger-Thomschitz, No. 08-10097-RWZ (D. Mass. 2009). 

At issue was this work, "Two Nudes (Lovers)" by Oskar Kokoschka, 1913.  The work has been on display "almost continuosly" since 1973 according to the Boston Globe's Geoff Edgers

The museum brought suit to preclude any potential restitution suit, essentially asking the court to declare it the rightful owner of the work.  The Museum brought suit back in January 2008, and in the complaint argued the "painting was never confiscated by the Nazis, was never sold by force as a result of Nazi persecution, and was not otherwise taken". 

The potential claimant, Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, claimed the painting was sold under duress by Oskar Reichel a physician and gallery owner in Austria. The work had been consigned on several occasions to an art dealer, Otto Kallir who owned the Neue Galerie in Vienna.  Kallir later left Vienna, eventually coming to New York, and he brought this and some other works of art with him.  He sent money to Reichel's sons at this point.  In 1939, the work was sent to Paris; in 1945 it was sold to a New York dealer for $1,500; Sarah Blodgett purchased the work in the 1940s; she gave the work to the MFA Boston in 1972.

District Judge Rya Zobel held:

[A]lthough the Reichel family never claimed compensation for any of the Kokoschka works that had been transferred to Kallir for sale, it did claim restitution for artwork and property that had been stolen by the Nazis.

[T]he Reichel family never attempted to recover the painting after WWII, and there is no evidence that it believed the transfer was not legitimate.

The evidence is undisputed that the members of the Reichel family had sufficient knowledge of Reichel’s ownership and transfer of the painting.

Dr. Seger-Thomschitz also ―waited more than three years to assert her claim after she was on inquiry notice of her possible right to the Painting…The information necessary to pursue her claim was readily available to both [Dr. Seger-Thomschitz] and her counsel at that time.

[T]he delay in bringing suit will prejudice the MFA because all of the witnesses with actual knowledge of the transfer are deceased.

Any claim by Dr. Seger-Thomschitz that Oskar Reichel was misled when he transferred the painting to Otto Kallir in 1939 was ―pure speculation.
 The court has held that the claimant had opportunities to seek title to the work, but did not, and as a consequence the limitations period has run.   Malcolm Rogers, Director of the MFA Boston stated “The MFA conducted a year and a half long comprehensive investigation of the work’s provenance, seeking documentation of the various transactions and changes of ownership in the painting’s almost 100-year history. We are satisfied and grateful that the judge has reaffirmed the Museum’s rightful ownership of the work.”
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