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Who owns looted art?

on Thursday, 04 June 2015.

You may have seen the film, The Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren, which tells the story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee from Austria.

She pursued the Austrian government to have a number of Gustav Klimt paintings returned to her family after they had been looted by the Nazis in 1938.

After a legal battle, an arbitration panel ruled that Austria was required to return the art to Mrs Altmann. Although treasures of this type are rare, Mrs Altmann’s story is topical as, across the world, the amount of emerging looted art is increasing.

Legally and morally, questions arise about the right approach to take on this sensitive issue. There are often two innocent victims, the original owner (or their heirs) and the purchaser who subsequently bought the art in good faith.

We have recently acted for a client who was approached out of the blue by lawyers in America, who contacted him through a well-respected London auction house.

The American lawyers claimed that an Old Master painting owned by our client had been looted from their clients’ ancestor during the War.

Lengthy negotiations were necessary before the American lawyers were willing to agree with our client and, after his death, with his executors that the painting could be sold and the proceeds divided between the estate and the descendants of the original owner.

There is currently no globally agreed protocol for dealing with this issue, nor is there an automatic right for the heirs of a victim of looting to claim legal ownership of art that was stolen from their ancestor.

lf you require more information on this uniquely specialist area, please contact Michael Knowles on 0207 665 0903.