Legal Issues Surrounding Lost Art

 adverse possession IMAGEA recent Hollywood-like story out of Munich is setting the stage for some interesting issues regarding estate planning and the rights of heirs. In a raid on the home of Cornelius Gurlitt in Germany, the police found over 1,000 paintings, drawings, and other works of art packed alongside hoarded groceries.  Among the art discovered were works by Beckman, Picasso, Matisse, and Renoir – all taken from Jewish collectors in Nazi Germany.  According to an article from the Chicago Tribune, the art stashed away in Gurlitt’s house could be worth over $1 billion.

 The Nazi Regime and “Degenerate Art”

The art found in Gurlitt’s home was previously possessed by Gurlitt’s father, who helped Adolf Hitler sell art that had been stolen or quickly sold off by Jewish collectors throughout Europe. The Nazis categorized many great works of art as ‘degenerate’ and sold them on the open art market to provide additional wartime funding. Despite human rights organizations and Jewish groups around the world calling on Gurlitt to unconditionally return the art to their rightful owners, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that he has no plans of returning the artwork to those who owned the pieces sixty years ago.  Instead, Gurlitt said, he plans on spending his life with the paintings.

Legal Issues

How is it that Gurlitt is allowed to keep art stolen by Nazis?  Due to the sheer enormity of the find by German police officers, there is no legal precedent for what to do with all of the art. While many believe that the art should simply be returned to those who lost it during World War II, the solution is not that simple.  First, a statute of limitations may exist barring collectors who lost their work from making claims against Gurlitt.  A statute of limitations is a legally prescribed time limit in which a lawsuit may be filed in court.  Second, some are already claiming that Gurlitt owns the art through adverse possession.  Adverse possession is a way in which someone else may acquire ownership of property so long as a number of requirements are met, including ‘openly’ using the property so that the true owner is put on notice.

While in the U.S. the doctrine of adverse possession primarily applies to real estate, in Germany it can apply to art as well.  Hence, even if someone who lived under Nazi rule could show that they had lost their property to Hitler’s regime, after decades of the art being in someone else’s possession, any claims for restitution may be barred.

Sometimes the law regarding property ownership and the rights of heirs can be complicated, even nonsensical.  It is therefore important that you make sure all of your assets are accounted for and your estate is planned.  If you have any questions regarding your estate, contact an experienced Illinois estate planning attorney today.

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