Repatriation & Restitution (Part I): Legalities

August 23, 2023 – Media Mention

Partners, Lawrence M. Kaye and Howard N. Spiegler, spoke to MutualArt about their 50 years of first-hand experience navigating the intricate legal process of repatriation and restitution of art and artifacts.

The article noted that Larry and Howard are considered "world-renowned leaders in the field of art recovery." Larry explained that he was assigned a case directly out of law school, which involved repatriation during World War II, that initially piqued his interest in art law. This case would ultimately last several years, long enough for Howard to join the practice and work alongside Larry. This case was successful, and Larry and Howard officially found themselves working under the title of “art lawyers.”

The article highlighted that the 1990s saw Holocaust restitution as a “a significant part of repatriation discourse.” Larry and Howard’s firm “were retained to handle one of the first major cases of World War II restitution, The United States v. Portrait of Wally, which established the precedent that art collectors, gallery owners, and museums should be making an effort to return works of art to their rightful, original owners. This landmark case “established the precedent that art collectors, gallery owners, and museums should be making an effort to return works of art to their rightful, original owners.”

The article explained that "repatriation between institutions and individuals is most common when dealing with works of art, whereas artifacts and antiquities are more commonly dealt with on a country-to-country basis." When Larry and Howard first started getting involved in art law, museums "made the case that if all works were returned, there would be nothing left on display." In response to this, Larry and Howard became involved in the movement to establish a committee in the United States that assists claimants, attempting to emulate a similar system seen in Europe. Around a decade ago, Larry and Howard had a multitude of meetings with the State Department in pursuit of this, and while it ultimately proved too difficult to recreate, Larry believes that there is still reason to be hopeful. “The US is often slow to follow,” Larry noted, and some changes have been made.

Larry and Howard, with the assistance of others, have worked to reframe the statute of limitations to support original owners. New federal regulations were also imposed that were deemed more favorable to claimants. While these initial modifications have been helpful, unless it is extended, the “sunset period on the law will see it expire in the next three or so years.” These obstacles have pushed lawyers like Larry and Howard to deal primarily with “repatriation abroad in the realm of country-to-country repatriation.”

Larry and Howard have assisted foreign governments in recovering “antiquities, artifacts, objects and other works created thousands of years ago that were buried, looted illegally, and then found elsewhere.” In this area, interpretation of the law is more clear-cut. Larry and Howard often refer to an “in or under the ground law” that sees anything which was found under or over the ground within a country’s modern borders as belonging to that country.

When asked what pieces they would most like to see returned to their rightful owners in the future, both Larry and Howard, without discussing beforehand, said the Parthenon Marbles. Noting that, after all, it is one of the most famous instances of looted art, and it has long been a trending talking point in the art world, with polls showing a steady increase in the number of Britons in favor of returning the work. “It will involve moving mountains,” Howard said, but he finds hope in the global trend that sees more people caring about ownership. “Public opinion is not insignificant,” he concluded, “because these issues are political.”

Read the full article in MutualArt here.