A newly enacted federal statute is intended to facilitate loans of art to U.S. museums from government-owned museums abroad, by protecting the art from private claimants while in the U.S.  In recent years, fear that a U.S. court might order the seizure of artworks loaned to a U.S. museum for the benefit of claimants to the art, or creditors of a foreign government, has put a damper on cultural exchanges between the U.S. and various countries.  The new law contains two important carve-outs, however, so its effectiveness remains to be seen.

On December 16, 2016, President Obama signed into law the Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act (the “FCEJICA”).1  The purpose of the new law is to protect from seizure by private plaintiffs claiming superior title or creditor status artwork loaned to U.S. museum exhibitions by foreign governments and museums that are foreign state institutions.

The new law amends the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (the “FSIA”) by clarifying that works in the collection of a foreign government or foreign state museum and imported for the purpose of exhibition or display are not to be considered part of “commercial activity” are and therefore immune from U.S. litigation under the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  Under the new statute, immunity takes hold when an agreement is entered into by the work’s “custodian” (that is, the institution holding the art in its collection) and the U.S. government or a cultural or educational institution within the United States.

Once the loan agreement is executed and the President or his designee determines that the works in question are of “cultural significance” or that display of the works is “in the national interest,” those works obtain immunity from U.S. litigation.2

However, the legislation carves out an exception under which looted artwork whose chain of custody is traceable back to Nazi-era activity, by either the Nazi government itself or other European collaborationist governments formed by the occupying German army, does not fall within the statute’s protection and so may be reached by U.S. courts under the “commercial activity” exception to sovereign immunity.3  In addition, the legislation carves out an exception for property confiscated or misappropriated from vulnerable groups by oppressive governments after the year 1900.4

In general, foreign governments and their agencies are not subject to lawsuits in the United States under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, codified in the FSIA.  That statute provides a number of exceptions, notably for activity of foreign state enterprises engaging in “commercial activity” in the U.S.  The effect of the new law is to make clear that the FSIA’s “commercial activity” exception to jurisdictional immunity does not include works of art loaned by foreign governments or state-owned institutions and imported into the United States for an exhibition or display, with the above-noted exceptions for Nazi-era activity and oppressive governments aside.  The aim is to give comfort to foreign governments and their state-owned museums that artworks they loan to U.S. museums will be returned to them at the end of the exhibition and will not be seized through litigation in state or federal courts—whether by claimants to the works themselves or creditors who allege they are owed money by the foreign government.

The issue of whether foreign state-owned museums are subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts under the “commercial activity” exception to sovereign immunity was famously litigated in Altmann v. Republic of Austria, 317 F.3d 954 (9th Cir. 2002), aff’d, 541 U.S. 677 (2004).  In that case, the subject of the 2015 film Woman in Gold,5 the claimants sued the Austrian national museum (known in English as the Belvedere Gallery) in the Central District of California to regain possession of six Gustav Klimt paintings, including Adele Bloch-Bauer I & II.  The plaintiffs claimed that the Belvedere’s publication, marketing and sale of guidebooks and books about Klimt in the gift shops of U.S. museums, and advertisements in the U.S., subjected the Austrian museum to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts within the “commercial activity” exception to sovereign immunity.6  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Gallery was in fact engaging in “commercial activity,” and the Supreme Court affirmed on the narrow question of whether the FSIA or prior case law controlled as to events occurring before the FSIA’s enactment.7

Since this development in interpretation of the FSIA, there have been instances of U.S. museums struggling to find foreign museums willing to make loans of art for their exhibitions.  For instance, the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York recently faced roadblocks in securing loans of art from Cuba for an exhibition titled “Wild Noise.”  Despite the Obama administration’s commitment to an open relationship with Cuba and removal of the blockade against that island nation, the Cuban government refused to loan any artworks without guarantees from the United States government that no pieces would be seized.8  Cuba has good reason to be concerned over potential seizure of its property — at least 5,913 claims by American citizens have been registered with the U.S. Department of Justice concerning property taken by the Cuban government after Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959.9 Those claims are worth several billion dollars today.10  Because Cuba’s concerns over seizure have made it all but impossible for museums to put together exhibitions of Cuban art, recent exhibitions in the United States have been curated from American collectors.11

Groups such as the Association of Art Museum Directors have since 2012 supported the type of legislation embodied in the FCEJICA.12  Although the FSIA originally recognized the need for immunity for foreign states from many types of claims, the Altmann case diluted the protection available to foreign states under that statute.13

A prominent current controversy where the new statute may come into play involves the Russian government.  In Agudas Chasidei Chabad of United States v. Russian Federation, a U.S. District Court judge fined Russia $43.7 million for failing to return to the Chabad Lubavitch movement (now headquartered in Brooklyn, NY) certain books, manuscripts and handwritten teachings of the Grand Rebbe of the Lubavitch movement seized by the Red Army during the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Civil War and World War II.14  Russia refused to participate in the American lawsuit, stating that it “decline[s] to participate further in this litigation” and “believe[s] this Court has no authority to enter Orders with respect to the property owned by the Russian Federation and in its possession, and the Russian Federation will not consider any such Orders to be binding on it.”15  The Russians argue that the Luvbavitch claims should be heard in a Russian court. In response to the court’s entry of default judgment in 2010, the Russian government has refused to loan works of art to American museums, citing a concern that a United States court will order the seizure of works to satisfy the judgment.16  Among the exhibitions from which Russian museums pulled back on loan commitments was the Cézanne show in 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a 2011 show at the National Gallery of Art including Gauguin’s Tahitian period.17

Before its enactment, some critics argued that the bill, as originally introduced — although it contained the Nazi exception — would have placed the United States on the side of Russia and other oppressive governments that did not respect the cultural and other rights of minority groups.18 Thereafter, Congress introduced a new version of the bill that contained an additional carve-out which excepted property “taken in connection with the acts of a foreign government as part of a systematic campaign of coercive confiscation or misappropriation of works from members of a targeted and vulnerable group.”19 Congress then enacted that version of the bill.

Whether the new law will unfreeze potential art loans from Russia and other countries remains to be determined. It seems reasonable to conclude, given the legislative history and addition of the oppressive government carve-out in response to anti-Russian critics, that the new law will not affect the stalemate with Russia.20

A closer question is whether Cuba will change its no-loans stance in response to the new law. The statute’s “or” clause provides room for interpretation. Although it seems that Cuba would likely also fall under the statute’s reach because it arguably engaged in “a systematic campaign of coercive confiscation,” the Cuban government could argue that both the “coercive confiscation” and “misappropriation” described in the statute is relevant only in relation to “targeted and vulnerable group[s].” It may not be an attractive argument to make, but if any of Cuba’s art loaned to a U.S. museum were sought to be seized under the oppressive government carve-out, Cuba could assert that that provision did not apply because the Castro regime confiscated assets from anyone owning property—without discriminating against minorities.21 If that argument sticks, the Trump administration’s stance toward Cuba—and whether it would support Cuba in the event of litigation—will be decisive for the foreseeable future.

Museums hoping that the FCEJICA will revive stalled international art exchanges need to examine the larger picture. While enactment of this legislation may encourage some foreign governments and comfort them with a level of assurance they feel protects their property, other states will perceive a continuing threat of seizure based on their past actions. Rather than a cure-all for problems facing institutions seeking to borrow art from foreign museums, this legislation is only a starting point.

1. Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act, Pub. L. No. 114-319, 28 U.S.C. § 1603(h).
2. Id.
3. Id. § 1603(h)(2)(B)(1).
4. Id. § 1603(h)(2)(B)(2).
5. Woman in Gold, IMDB, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2404425/ (last visited Jan. 18, 2017).
6. 317 F.3d at 968-69.
7. Id. at 969; see 541 U.S. 677.
8. David D’Arcy, U.S. Museum’s Cuban Dream Deferred, N.Y. TIMES (Sept. 30, 2016) http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/us-museums-cuban-dreams-deferred/.
9. Marisa Taylor, How to Resolve American Property Claims in Cuba, AL JAZEERA AMERICA (Jan. 1, 2015) http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/1/how-to-resolve-american-property-claims-in-cuba.html.
10. Id.
11. D’Arcy, supra note 8.
12. Doreen Carvajal, Bill to Shield International Art Loans Gains in Senate, N.Y. TIMES (Sept. 16, 2016) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/17/arts/design/bill-to-shield-international-art-loans-gains-in-senate.html.
13. H.R. REP. No. 114-141 (2015).
14. 128 F. Supp. 3d 242, 244 (D.D.C. 2015); see also Sophia Kishkovsky, Art is a Weapon as Russia and U.S. Fight in Cultural War, THE ART NEWSPAPER (Oct. 12, 2015) http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/art-is-a-weapon-as-russia-and-us-fight-cultural-war/.
15. Agudas Chasidei Chabad of United States v. Russian Federation, 729 F. Supp. 2d 141, 144 (D.D.C. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted).
16. Sophia Kishkovsky, Art is a Weapon as Russia and U.S. Fight in Cultural War, THE ART NEWSPAPER, (Oct. 12, 2015), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/art-is-a-weapon-as-russia-and-us-fight-cultural-war/.
17. Carol Vogel, Dispute Derails Art Loans from Russia, N.Y. TIMES, (Feb. 2, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/arts/design/03museum.html.
18. Issac Arnsdorf, Russia critics, museums square off over Senate artwork bill, POLITICO (Sept. 15, 2016), http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/senate-artworks-museums-russia-228239/.
19. Foreign Cultural Exchange Jurisdictional Immunity Clarification Act, § 1603(h)(2)(B).
20. H.R. 889, 114th Cong. (2016); S. 3155. 114th Cong. (2016).
21. D’Arcy, supra note 8 (discussing how the current claims only represent those by American citizens and not Cuban refugees who currently do not have standing to bring suit in any court).