On December 16, 2016, President Obama signed the HEAR Act into law, establishing a uniform statute of limitations to govern claims seeking recovery of Nazi-confiscated art.
Confiscation of art by the Nazis during World War II has been described as the “greatest displacement of art in human history.” Almost twenty percent of all European art was taken by the Nazis during this dark period in history and an estimated number of 300,000 artworks are still missing today. However, victims of Nazi persecution faced challenging procedural obstacles due to restrictive state statute of limitation laws which varied by state. According to Congressional findings, the process of building a case from fragmented historical records destroyed by the war is often costly and often cannot be done “within the time constraints imposed by existing law.”
To provide Holocaust-era victims and their heirs a fair opportunity to recover looted works, the Senate introduced the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act in 2015. The bill was also notably endorsed by actress Helen Mirren who testified before Congress in favor of the bill at hearing in June 2015. Mirren’s interest in the subject stemmed from her playing the lead role in the 2015 film “Woman in Gold” which was based on the real-life story of Maria Altmann who took her case to the Supreme Court in 2004 to recover her family’s paintings stolen by the German government.
The HEAR Act imposes several significant changes which include:
- A Uniform Statute of Limitations: The statute imposes a six year statute of limitations which commences when the plaintiff receives actual knowledge (or has sufficient knowledge to amount to actual knowledge) of either (1) the identity and location of the artwork or (2) the plaintiff’s possessory interest in the artwork.
- Preemption: This law will preempt state laws governing the statute of limitations for civil claims seeking restitution of artwork confiscated by the Nazis.
- Applicability: This six-year statute of limitations applies to claims seeking recovery of “artwork or other property” (e.g., paintings, sculptures, engravings, graphic arts, artistic assemblages and montages, books, sound and photograph mediums, etc.) misappropriated by the German government or its allies or agents between 1933 and 1945 that are pending (including on appeal) as of the date of enactment and claims filed before December 31, 2026.
- Exception: The six-year statute of limitations, however, does not apply to claims where actual or constructive discovery occurred on or after January 1, 1999 and therefore would have not been barred by a federal or state statute of limitations but the claimant did not assert his/her rights for a period of at least six years.
- Pre-existing Claims: For all civil claims and causes of action whereby the victim (1) had actual knowledge of the identity and location of the artwork or his/her possessory interest in the artwork and (2) the claim or cause of action had been barred by a federal or state statute of limitations, the HEAR Act deems the date of actual discovery to be the date of enactment (i.e., December 16, 2017). Thus, for all pre-existing claims that had previously been barred, the date of commencement of the statute of limitations is reset to December 16, 2017.
- Sunset Provision: This statute of limitations will remain effect until January 1, 2017. Any claim commenced on or after this date will be subject to any other applicable statutes of limitations.
This newly enacted law seeks to achieve the lofty goal of ensuring that Holocaust recovery claims will be resolved on the merits rather than on procedural grounds.