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US House passes bill to ease return of Nazi-looted art

Legislation heading to Senate would extend period for original owners or heirs to fight for restitution

Academy Award winner Helen Mirren and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder in front of the famous ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,’ nicknamed ‘Woman in Gold’  in June 2015. (Shahar Azran)
Academy Award winner Helen Mirren and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder in front of the famous ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,’ nicknamed ‘Woman in Gold’ in June 2015. (Shahar Azran)

A bill to ease the return of Nazi-looted artworks to their original owners or heirs passed the US House of Representatives on Wednesday.

The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, or HEAR Act, must now pass the Senate.

The bill aims to lengthen the statute of limitations for returning stolen artwork to six years from the date that the art in question is identified and located, and evidence of ownership has been presented.

In some past cases, current holders of stolen art were able to avoid restitution because states had statutes of limitations as short as three years.

World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder in March 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder in March 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“With the House’s approval of the HEAR Act, Holocaust victims and their families are one step closer to a clear legal path to recovering art stolen by the Nazis,” said Ronald Lauder, chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery and president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

“These cases should be decided on the facts and merit, not hindered by legal technicalities. This important legislation will further this objective and help ensure that justice for Holocaust survivors and their families is achieved.” In statement, Lauder called on the Senate to “quickly pass” the legislation and to send it to US President Barack Obama for his signature.

The Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act was introduced in the Senate in April by Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, along with Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. It was introduced in the House in September by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. Goodlatte is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

In June, testimony was held before the Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittees on the importance of the HEAR Act. Among those testifying was British actress Helen Mirren, who said that “restoring physical parts of lost heritage to Holocaust victims and their families is a moral imperative.”

Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as her attorney Randol Schoenberg in the film 'Woman in Gold.' (Robert Viglasky/The Weinstein Company)
Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as her attorney Randol Schoenberg in the film ‘Woman in Gold.’ (Robert Viglasky/The Weinstein Company)

Mirren said she became steeped in the issue while playing Maria Altmann in the 2015 film “Woman of Gold.” Altmann battled the Austrian government for years until 2004, when she recovered works stolen from her family by the Nazis.

In 2006, Lauder — who is also President of the World Jewish Congress — bought “Woman of Gold” otherwise known as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt for $135 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting at that time.

During World War II, the Nazis stole valuable belongings, including art, from Jewish families. Much of the looted property was not returned after the war, and heirs of the families have faced lengthy legal battles to recover their family belongings.

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