In its April 5, 2018 decision in Reif v. Nagy (Index No. 161799/15), the Commercial Division of New York State Supreme Court ordered two pieces of alleged Nazi-looted art turned over to relatives of their original Jewish owner, Fritz Grunbaum.[1] In a surprise ruling, the Court’s holding came in direct opposition to that reached by the Southern District of New York in a 2011 decision (affirmed by the Second Circuit in 2012) concerning essentially the same facts in Bakalar v. Vavra (“Bakalar”).[2] Defendants have indicated that they will appeal the state court’s decision, which could have a dramatic impact on restitution claims by other victims of Nazi persecution.[3]

The Grunbaum Art Collection

Fritz Grunbaum was a prominent cabaret performer in 1930s Vienna and an avid collector of art. His collection contained numerous works by Egon Schiele, including the two works at issue here, Woman in a Black Pinafore and Woman Hiding Her Face. In 1938, after Grunbaum had been arrested and imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp following the German absorption of Austria, the Nazi forces ordered Jewish citizens to turn over all assets worth over 5,000 Reichmarks. The Third Reich inventoried and catalogued Grunbaum’s art collection, then forced Grunbaum to sign a power of attorney granting his wife, Elisabeth Grunbaum, control over his assets. Grunbaum died in 1941 at Dachau; Elisabeth also died at a concentration camp one or two years later. At some point – exactly when or how is unclear from the historical evidence – Elisabeth’s sister, Mathilde Lukacs, obtained possession of Grunbaum’s collection; in 1956, she sold the paintings to the Kornfeld Gallery in Bern, Switzerland, maintaining at that time that she owned them. Thereafter, the paintings changed hands several times through private sales. Ultimately, defendant and art dealer Richard Nagy purchased Woman Hiding Her Face (1912) and a half-interest in Woman in a Black Pinafore (1911).

The State Court Litigation

In 2015, plaintiffs Milos Vavra, Timothy Reif and David Frankel (“Plaintiffs”) – remote relatives and statutory heirs to the Grunbaum estate – filed suit against Nagy and his private company, Richard Nagy Limited (“Defendants”), after Nagy publicly exhibited the two Schiele works at issue at the Salon Art + Design show in New York. Plaintiffs asserted claims of conversion, replevin and violation of New York General Business Law § 349, and subsequently moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs argued that Grunbaum’s ownership of the works before World War II was undisputed, and that because Defendants could not establish that the initial transfer from Grunbaum to his wife had been voluntary, all subsequent transfers of the paintings were void.[4]

Cross-moving for summary judgment, Defendants contended that Plaintiffs had not met the burden of proof on their claims because the only purported evidence of Grunbaum’s ownership of the works – a catalogue from 1956 – was inconclusive, and that “it is the identity of the person who sold the artworks [to Kornfeld], then, that becomes the key issue.”[5] Defendants maintained that they had established that Grunbaum’s sister-in-law possessed the artworks after the war and sold them to Kornfeld, and that “[t]he most reasonable inference to draw from these facts is that the [artworks] remained in the Grunbaum family’s possession and [were] never appropriated by the Nazis.”[6] Defendants also claimed that Plaintiffs’ claims are barred by laches, because Plaintiffs failed to diligently pursue their claims “despite knowledge of Grunbaum, his art collection, and Mathilde Lukacs.”[7]

New York State Supreme Court Justice Charles A. Ramos granted summary judgment to Plaintiffs. He held that, because Grunbaum’s initial transfer of the artworks to his wife had been pursuant to a power of attorney obtained via coercion, the transfer was not voluntary and thus was tantamount to theft.[8] Explaining that, “[i]n New York, a thief cannot pass good title,” he concluded that no subsequent transfer of title in the works was valid.[9] Accepting Plaintiffs’ evidence “that the artworks were the property of Mr. Grunbaum, and that the entirety of Mr. Grunbaum’s property was looted by the Nazis during World War II,” Justice Ramos found that Plaintiffs had carried their burden of making “a threshold showing that they have an arguable claim of a superior right of possession to the artworks.”[10] As a consequence, the burden shifted to Defendants to present evidence or raise a triable issue of fact to show that Mr. Grunbaum had voluntarily transferred the artworks during his life. Finding that “[D]efendants have not shown that Mr. Grunbaum ever voluntarily transferred the artworks to Ms. Lukacs,” Justice Ramos concluded that valid title never passed from Mr. Grunbaum.[11]

Bakalar and the HEAR Act

Justice Ramos’s ruling is particularly unexpected in light of the contrary ruling in Bakalar, in which the same plaintiffs brought similar claims in connection with another Schiele painting from the same Grunbaum collection. There, Judge Pauley of the Southern District of New York found that a preponderance of the evidence established that the painting at issue “was not looted by the Nazis.”[12] The Bakalar court found the fact that Grunbaum’s collection remained in the possession of his extended family after the war inconsistent with the Bakalar plaintiffs’ claim that the Nazis had looted those works. “While an inventory may have been a preliminary step in the looting of Jewish property,” Judge Pauley reasoned, “it is not proof that the [artwork] was seized”; rather, “Lukacs’ possession of the [artwork] after World War II strongly indicates that such a seizure never occurred.”[13] Judge Pauley found this inconsistency a sufficient basis for rejection of the very argument credited by Justice Ramos: that Grunbaum’s transfer of his collection to his wife was void because the power of attorney he executed was the product of duress.[14] Although Judge Pauley went on to find that, because “there is simply no evidence as to how Lukacs acquired the [artwork],” the Bakalar defendants failed to establish that Lukacs had good title to the Schiele work when she sold it to Kornfield, he ultimately held the Bakalar plaintiffs’ claims barred by laches as a result of their “lack of due diligence in attempting to locate the property.”[15] A unanimous panel of the Second Circuit affirmed Judge Pauley’s judgment for the Bakalar defendants.[16]

When the same plaintiffs filed suit again in New York State court in 2015, this time against Nagy, many in the legal community assumed that Justice Ramos would issue a similar ruling. So what changed between Bakalar in 2011-12 and Nagy in 2018?

The key intervening event was passage of the Federal Holocaust Expropriated Art Recover Act, or “HEAR Act,” in 2016.[17] As Justice Ramos notes, Congress enacted the HEAR Act with the “twin purposes” of (i) “ensuring that laws governing claims to Nazi-confiscated art and other property further United States policy” and (ii) “ensuring that claims to artworks and other property stolen or misappropriated by the Nazis are not unfairly barred by statutes of limitations but are resolved in a just and fair manner.”[18] While the HEAR Act by its express terms only acts to defeat provisions of law and defenses at law “relating to the passage of time,” Justice Ramos used the Act’s passage as a blunt instrument to invalidate any precedential value of Bakalar: “The [HEAR Act] was only made into law in 2016. To the extent that [D]efendants rely on judicial findings relating to claims or defenses articulated in [Bakalar], such discussion is irrelevant.”[19]

Then, underscoring that the HEAR Act had “instructed [us] to be mindful of the difficulty of tracing artwork provenance due to the atrocities of the Holocaust era,” Justice Ramos essentially set aside the unknowns of (i) exactly how Lukacs came to possess the Grunbaum collection and (ii) whether the Nazis ever actually took possession of the collection themselves, and instead focused exclusively on the involuntary nature of Grunbaum’s initial transfer to his wife.[20} Apparently equating this involuntariness with dispositive proof that the transferred artworks constituted “Nazi-looted art,” Justice Ramos concluded that the HEAR Act applied to the dispute.[21] He then ruled that the HEAR Act operated to defeat the defense of laches – without any discussion of Nagy’s argument to the contrary.[22]

Questions Going Forward

If Defendants go forward with an appeal, the Appellate Division will likely have at least two significant questions to review. First, what constitutes Nazi-related confiscat[ion],” theft, “missappropriat[ion]” or “loss” sufficient to bring a dispute within the ambit of the HEAR Act?[23] Is evidence of Nazi persecution leading to a transfer between family members (neither of whom was aligned with the Nazis) sufficient, or must there be a showing that the Nazis or their collaborators themselves ever took possession of the property in question? Second, does the HEAR Act’s bar of “any defense at law relating to the passage of time” operate to defeat the defense of laches — usually characterized as an equitable defense?[24] The implications of the appeal are far-reaching, as an affirmation would likely pave the way for additional litigation arising from similar fact patterns, where uncertainties or gaps in wartime provenance might otherwise have prevented plaintiffs from bringing successful claims.

[1] Reif v. Nagy, 2018 WL 1638805, Index No. 161799/2015 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. County Apr. 5, 2018).

[2] 819 F. Supp. 2d 293 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), aff’d, Bakalar v. Vara, 500 F. App’x 6 (2d Cir. 2012).

[3] Jason Grant, Battle Continues Over Nazi-Looted Art as Heirs Seek to Auction Prized Paintings, NY L. J. (Apr. 24, 2018).

[4] Pls.’ Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. at 15, Reif, Index No. 161799/2015, ECF No. 232.

[5] Defs.’ Mem. of Law in Opp’n To Pls.’ Mot. for Summ. J. (“Defs.’ Br.”) at 12, Reif, Index No. 161799/2015, ECF No. 240.

[6] Id. at 8 (citing Bakalar, 819 F. Supp. 2d at 298-99).

[7] Id. at 25.

[8] Reif, 2018 WL 1638805, at *1, *4 (“A signature at gunpoint cannot lead to valid conveyance.”).

[9] Id. at *2.

[10] Id. at *3.

[11] Id. at *4.

[12] Bakalar, 819 F. Supp. 2d at 299.

[13] Id. at 298-99.

[14] Id. at 300.

[15] Id. at 299, 303.

[16] Bakalar v. Vavra, 500 F. App’x 6 (2d Cir. 2012).

[17] Pub. L. 114-308 (“HEAR Act”), codified at 22 U.S.C. § 1621. For further discussion of the HEAR Act see Katie Gerlach Merrill, A Proposed Uniform State of Limitations for Nazi-Plundered Art and Cultural Property, HHR Art Law Blog (July 11, 2016).

[18] Reif, 2018 WL 1638805, at *2 (quoting HEAR Act §§ 3(1), 3(2)).

[19] Id. at *3.

[20] Id. at *1, *4.

[21] Id. at *5 (finding “absurd” Nagy’s argument that the HEAR Act was inapplicable).

[22] Nagy argued that the HEAR Act is focused on a uniform statute of limitations and does not operate to bar equitable defenses or the doctrine of laches. See Defs.’ Br. at 23.  Appealing to the Act’s legislative history, Nagy pointed out that the final version of the act omitted an express reference to laches that had been included in earlier versions. Id.

[23] HEAR Act §§ 3(1), 3(2), 5(a).

[24] HEAR Act § 5(a); see, e.g., Bakalar, 819 F. Supp. 2d at 306.