New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation on August 10 that would require museums in the state to publicly acknowledge whether a displayed work passed through Nazi hands. The signing ceremony took place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. According to the new law, any exhibited artwork that “changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means” during World War II and the run-up to that conflict must be accompanied by a wall label or poster detailing its history. New York law already requires works of this nature to be recorded in the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of stolen art. The legislation does not apply to works seized in other contexts, by other parties in other eras.
Recent years have seen a number of cases in which heirs have sued New York museums in attempts to get back works – including three paintings by George Grosz that reside in the Museum of Modern Art and Pablo Picasso’s. The actor, 1904–05, formerly owned by Jewish collectors Paul and Alice Leffmann and now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—they claim were looted or forcibly sold during the Nazi regime. In both of these cases, the museums were allowed to keep the works, partly because of the statute of limitations.
The bill was introduced by State Senator Anna M. Kaplan. “During the Holocaust, some 600,000 paintings were stolen from Jewish people, not only for their value, but to wipe our culture and identity off the face of the earth,” Kaplan said in a statement. “Today, artworks previously stolen by the Nazis can be found hanging in museums around New York with no recognition of the dark roads they traveled there. As the history of the Holocaust is so important to pass on to the next generation, it is vital that we are transparent and ensure that anyone who sees artworks stolen by the Nazis understands where they came from and their role in history.”
The new law is one of several aimed at raising awareness of the Holocaust, which is widely seen as increasingly necessary as the event recedes into history and the living memory of the tragedy fades. Hochul also signed legislation authorizing the commission of education to conduct a survey regarding instruction on the Holocaust, and a law requiring the state superintendent of financial services to maintain and update a list of financial institutions that waive wire transfers – or processing fees related to Holocaust compensation payments.