A Federal District Court in Ohio has denied the ownership claims of 15 people seeking an interest in this work. “Street Scene in Tahiti” by Paul Gauguin was purchased by the Toledo Museum of Art in 1939. It’s current value is estimated at between $10 and $15 million. A copy of the opinion memorandum is available here, courtesy of Harvard Law Professor Harry Martin III. The work belonged to a German Jew, Martha Nathan. In 1937, she left Germany to escape Nazi persecution. The next year, in 1938, Nathan sold this work to a group of art dealers she had known for some years, who were Jews as well. The three purchased the work for 30,000 Swiss Francs, ($6,900 USD). As Judge Zouhary notes, “this sale occurred outside Germany by and between private individuals who were familiar with each other. The Painting was not confiscated or looted by the Nazis; the sale was not at the direction of, nor did the proceeds benefit the Nazi regime.”
The work has hung in the TMA since its purchase in 1939, and Nathan brought other Restitution claims for Nazi persecution, but did not file a claim for the painting. In this case, Judge Zouhary applied Ohio’s 4-year statute of limitation. The trick with limitations periods hinges on when the limitations period has started to run. Under Ohio law, the discovery rule dictates that a claim accrues when a claimant discovers, or should have discovered the injury. This is precisely the kind of claim a statute of limitation is intended to cover. It also highlights that often in these cases, the issue of whether a limitations period has expired will often prove outcome-determinative.
The case is a bit peculiar. Often, it is the claimants who bring suit. However, in this case the Toledo Museum of Art preemptively brought an action last year in a quiet title action. Whether the claimants will seek an appeal remains to be seen, but it seems likely given the value of the work. However, they do not have a great set of facts to work with here. Their ultimate success seems quite unlikely.