In Memoriam: A Retrospective of Charles Goldstein and His Passionate Commitment to Recovering Nazi-Looted Art

October 2015Art & Advocacy, Volume 21

This essay was originally published in The National Law Journal.

For more than 15 years, as co-chairs of the art law group at Herrick, Feinstein, we have handled, on behalf of families of victims of the Holocaust, some of the most significant cases brought to recover artworks looted by the Nazis before and during World War II. Throughout this time, we were privileged to have the opportunity to work closely with an attorney whose legal acumen was matched only by his passionate commitment to correct the horrific injustices committed during the Nazi era—Charles Goldstein, who passed away at the age of 78 on July 30.

After completing a long and distinguished career as one of the most influential and prominent real estate lawyers in New York, Charles saw the opportunity to apply his remarkable legal skills to the cause of recovering Nazi-looted artworks as the pinnacle of his professional life, and quickly became a leader in the worldwide fight to recover these artworks.

But he did much more than that. He was also a passionate advocate who wrote articles and made speeches around the world in his indefatigable quest to compel governments, museums, and others who refused to return looted artworks to fulfill what he saw as their responsibility to do so.

The families who sought their property back needed a strong spokesman on their side. Despite the adoption of lofty principles by more than 40 nations both at the Washington Conference in 1998 and in the Terezin Declaration in 2009 – which together made clear that claims to recover Nazi-looted artworks should be determined on the merits of the claims and not based on technical defenses like the statute of limitations and similar roadblocks – Charles was continually frustrated by governments and museums that ignored these principles.

Charles took particular issue with museums which take the position that if they determine, without a court proceeding, that a particular claim lacks merit, they owe it to the public, for whom they deemed themselves trustees of the artworks in their possession, to get the claim dismissed on any technical grounds available, rather than allow the claimants to have their day in court to determine the merits of their claim. When museums thus fought to keep possession of what might very well be proven to be stolen art, Charles charged them with subverting the public trust rather than protecting it.

But Charles did not stop there. He argued that museum personnel who are directly involved in arranging for a museum to acquire or borrow looted artworks may be personally liable for conversion, notwithstanding that they may have been acting on behalf of the museum. He urged those who worked for museums to serve as role models for the rest of the museum community and ensure that information about potentially problematic artworks be made available to the public, thereby affording potential claimants a better chance of finding and recovering their property.

Charles had a keen sense of right and wrong, and he railed against those who would substitute legal niceties, technical arguments, and their own desire to possess valuable artworks for the fair determination by courts of all claims to recover Nazi-looted art. As counsel to our firm and in his role as counsel to our client, the Commission for Art Recovery, which was established to effect the recovery of Nazi-looted art worldwide, Charles possessed the impressive ability to help us pierce through some of the most difficult legal issues we confronted. Charles forced us to consider every angle available in our joint pursuit of justice for those who sought the return of their families' property.

As a champion of these claimants, Charles was remarkably successful in achieving restitution of their artworks. The Commission for Art Recovery estimates that under Charles' stewardship, it recovered or helped recover more than $160 million worth of stolen art. Charles was particularly proud to have helped recover a Gustave Courbet ("Femme Nue Couchée") for the family of Baron Ferenc Hatvany, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust in hiding but whose stunning collection of artworks, including the Courbet, disappeared from a Budapest bank at the end of World War II. It surfaced after some 50 years in the possession of a Slovak art dealer with whom Charles engaged in difficult negotiations that eventually resulted in the return of the painting to the Hatvany heirs. Charles pointedly commented at the time that it turned out to be easier to achieve recovery of Nazi-looted art from the Slovak dealer than from Hungarian and Russian government officials whose nations Charles had reason to believe still possessed Hatvany paintings in their museums.

All in all, what can we conclude about Charles' legacy? He handled difficult cases that resulted in the return of Nazi-looted artworks to their true owners. He raised the alarm about governments and museums, many of which continue to thwart the efforts of claimants to have their day in court to prove their claims on the merits. Perhaps most importantly, however, he showed that there is much work that still needs to be accomplished in the recovery of Nazi-looted artwork. We and our colleagues are proud to have the opportunity to carry on that work, guided by Charles' example. We look forward to a time when all governments, museums, and other possessors of such artwork will follow the principles for which he so ardently fought.