A New Polish Law Will Make It Practically Impossible to Pursue Restitution Claims for Nazi-Looted Artworks

The law radically truncates the statute of limitations for filing claims regarding stolen property.

Polish President Andrzej Duda. Photo by Filip Radwanski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Polish President Andrzej Duda. Photo by Filip Radwanski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Polish President Andrzej Duda has signed a controversial law reducing the statute of limitations on all challenges to allegedly stolen property, making Nazi-looted art restitutions practically impossible.

The U.S. and Israeli governments both denounced the law, which allows for claims to be made only up to 30 years since a theft, when it was first proposed, and Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called its passage “a shameful decision and disgraceful contempt for the memory of the Holocaust,” according to the Times of Israel.

“The new law in Poland is very disappointing because it eliminates the possibility for families to file claims for the restitution of property taken during the Nazi era,” Leila Amineddoleh, an expert in the field of art and cultural heritage law, told Artnet News in an email. “The victims already faced overwhelming obstacles in restitution cases. Proving title to art stolen decades prior is a tremendous challenge in any court of law, and now courts will not even hear these disputes.”

Citing alleged fraud in World War II-era restitution cases, Duda told Poland’s PAP news agency that the legislation would put an end to an “era of legal chaos” and “reprivatization mafias.” He denied that the change was motivated by anti-semitism, saying “linking this act with the Holocaust raises my firm objection.”

A lady wearing a face visor during her visit to the Barbican Museum in Krakow, Poland. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

A lady wearing a face visor during her visit to the Barbican Museum in Krakow, Poland. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

“This law is a slap in the face to what remains of Polish Jewry and survivors of Nazi brutality everywhere,” World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder said in a statement in June.

Most of Poland’s pre-war Jewish population—which was Europe’s largest, at nearly 3.5 million people—did not survive the Holocaust. Many who survived emigrated to Israel or the U.S. Because the nation’s communist regime remained in power until 1989, those whose property was confiscated during the Second World War had little recourse in terms of restitution for decades.

Poland has come under fire before for failing to uphold the non-binding Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, signed in 1998 to support the restitution of property seized by the Nazis. On the 20th anniversary of the international agreement, the U.S. State Department named Poland as one five countries that lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of its restitution efforts.

“There are long-standing complaints about Polish compliance with agreements and norms relating to Nazi-looted art,” art lawyer Frank Lord told Artnet News in an email. “It is clear that Poland is trying to block claims and that its actions are in violation of the principles that were espoused at the Washington Conference.”

Poland, in fact, has benefitted from the restitution laws of other nations on numerous occasions, seeking the return of what it views as its cultural patrimony.

Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Photo by Adrian Grycuk Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Poland license.

Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Photo by Adrian Grycuk Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Poland license.

The law will lead to the dismissal of thousands of cases that have been under litigation for years, Łukasz Bernatowicz, a lawyer who represents numerous claimants in restitution cases told Politico.

And the legislation now seems to be triggering a breakdown in Israeli-Polish relations, with the Israel Foreign Ministry recommending that the Polish ambassador not return to Israel after his current vacation, reports the Associated Press.

The new Israeli ambassador to Poland has cancelled his trip to the nation, and the government has recalled its top diplomats from Warsaw.


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