If you find yourself involved in a Nazi restitution dispute, be sure to develop your statute of limitations defense in responding to a motion for summary judgment. That’s the lesson I take from Vineberg v. Bissonnette, 2007 WL 4571154 D.R.I., 2007 (Dec. 27, 2007). Federal District Court Judge Mary Lisi ordered Maria-Louise Bissonnette to return the work to the estate of Max Stern. The dispute involved this work, Girl from the Sabiner Mountains, by Franz-Xaver Winterhalter.
The court gave the background of the case as follows (emphasis added):
Dr. Stern was of Jewish descent and, under the Nuremberg laws, was subject to official persecution by the German government. In 1935, the Reich Chamber for the Fine Arts (“Reich Chamber”), an organization of the Nazi government, sent letters to Dr. Stern demanding that he liquidate his inventory and gallery. On or about September 13, 1937, Dr. Stern received a final order to sell his inventory immediately through a dealer approved by the Reich Chamber. Dr. Stern consigned most of his inventory and private collection, constituting hundreds of works, to the Lempertz Auction House (“LAH”), in Cologne, Germany. On or about November 13, 1937, LAH auctioned the items consigned to it by Dr. Stern, including the property that is the subject of the dispute in this matter, a nineteenth century painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter entitled “Madchen aus den Sabiner Bergen” (“Girl from the Sabiner Mountains”) (“the Painting”). The items consigned to LAH by Dr. Stern were sold at well below market value. Dr. Stern fled Germany for Paris in December 1937. Upon discovering that Dr. Stern left Germany, the German government issued an order freezing his assets. Dr. Stern never received the proceeds of the LAH sale. Dr. Stern eventually left Paris to join his sister in London prior to the outbreak of World War II. Dr. Stern later emigrated to Canada and became a preeminent art collector and dealer there.
In most of these disputes, the question of whether an action is timely is outcome-determinative. That’s probably not surprising given the events giving rise to a cause of action occurred seventy years ago. It seems clear that Stern took great pains to attempt to locate his lost works, and as such the limitations defense may have been difficult. But even so, the defendant seems to have missed their best argument by failing to raise an adequate statute of limitations defense. As such, the action was timely, and both parties had agreed to most of the relevant facts. As the painting was sold “well below market value” and Stern never received the proceeds, the defendant now has to relinquish the painting, even though she appears blameless.