Act of State Doctrine. Second Circuit affirms dismissal of claims against museum in possession of a painting confiscated by the Bolshevik regime on grounds that the claims are barred by the act of state doctrine.
Plaintiff, the heir to his great-grandfather's estate, brought suit against Defendant Metropolitan Museum of Art (the "Museum") after it refused to relinquish a Cezanne painting that had been confiscated from his great-grandfather in 1918 by the Russian Bolshevik regime.
The complaint alleged that upon seizing power from the Provisional Government in Russia in 1918, the Bolshevik regime -- later succeeded by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ("U.S.S.R.") -- issued a number of decrees nationalizing property, including the art collection belonging to Plaintiff's great-grandfather. In 1933, certain members of the Politburo sold the painting in question, possibly in violation of Soviet law, to an individual, who in turn bequeathed it to the Museum.
The Museum moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing, inter alia, that the act of state doctrine barred Plaintiff's claims because the court could not inquire into the validity of the public acts of a foreign sovereign committed within its own territory. The district court agreed, noting that the Bolshevik regime took the painting pursuant to a 1918 Soviet nationalization decree and that courts in the Second Circuit have consistently held such Soviet decrees to be official acts that must be accepted as valid under the act of state doctrine. The court considered that upsetting this precedent would risk upsetting U.S. relations with the current Russian government.
The district court also found that, although the United States did not recognize the U.S.S.R. until November 1933, official recognition is retroactive in effect and validates the actions of a revolutionary regime from its commencement. Likewise, the court held that the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 and the current government's investigation into sales of art abroad during 1928-1933 did not mean that the U.S.S.R. was no longer an extant and recognized regime for purposes of the doctrine, because the current Russian government had not repudiated the policy of nationalization of property under the Soviet regime. The district court rejected Plaintiff's argument that the act of state doctrine should not apply because the confiscation did not have a legitimate government purpose, stating that this was just the type of inquiry prohibited by the doctrine.
On appeal to the Second Circuit, Plaintiff principally argued that the district court erred in holding that the painting was taken pursuant to a valid act of state despite factual allegations in the complaint to the contrary. The Second Circuit disagreed and affirmed the dismissal, primarily for the reasons stated in the district court's opinion. The court noted that the district court did not err in failing to credit Plaintiff's characterization of the Soviet confiscation as "an act of theft." The Second Circuit held that this was a legal assertion that the district court was not required to accept and, furthermore, the lawfulness of the taking was precisely what the act of state doctrine barred the district court from determining. The court also held that once the painting was confiscated by the Soviet regime in 1918, Plaintiff's great-grandfather lost title to the painting and therefore Plaintiff had no standing to complain of or seek declaratory judgment regarding the sale or treatment of the painting after 1918.