If You Want Your Art Back, Be Mindful of the Statute of Limitations

Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The First Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston v. Seger-Thomschitz on October 14, 2010. Claudia Seger-Thomschitz, the heir of art collector Oskar Reichel, contacted the Museum of Fine Arts to reclaim Two Nudes by Oskar Kokoschka. Seger-Thomschitz argued that the painting left the hands Reichel because of Nazi coercion.

The Museum of Fine Arts spent 18 months researching the issue and concluded that Reichel sold the painting voluntarily. The Boston Globe published criticisms of this view in a May 2008 article. Nevertheless, the MFA sought an order from federal district court declaring that the museum legitimately owned the painting. The lower court ruled that the MFA rightfully owned the painting, and the court of appeals has now affirmed this decision.

The basis of the court of appeal's opinion is threefold. First, the district court's grant of a favorable judgment for the museum was proper on statute of limitations grounds because Seger-Thomschitz did not make a demand on the MFA within the three years statute of limitations under Massachusetts law. Second, the appeals court rejected Seger-Thomschitz's weak claim that the statute of limitations should bend in the wake of the non-profit section of the federal Internal Revenue Code [501(c)(3)]. Third, the court rejected her argument that the Massachusetts statute of limitations conflicted with America's foreign policy as expressed through the Holocaust Victims Redress Act of 1998, the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, the Vilnius Forum Declaration, and the TerezĂ­n Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues. These proclamations are aspirational and not law, the court essentially declared.

The message in this case is clear: Where a party believes that art is improperly in the hands of another, the claimant must be conscious of the statute of limitations clock and perform the necessary due diligence to start a cause of action.

Two Nudes can be seen at http://www.mfa.org/collections/search_art.asp?recview=true&id=34173&coll_keywords=&coll_accession=&coll_name=two+nudes&coll_artist=Kokoschka&coll_place=&coll_medium=&coll_culture=&coll_classification=&coll_credit=&coll_provenance=&coll_location=&coll_has_images=&coll_on_view=&coll_sort=2&coll_sort_order=0&coll_view=0&coll_package=0&coll_start=1

"Holocaust Historians Blast MFA Stance in Legal Dispute," The Boston Globe, May 28, 2008 at http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2008/05/28/holocaust_historians_blast_mfa_stance_in_legal_dispute/