A federal appeals court in Boston ruled today the heir of a Jewish art collector in Vienna has no right to a painting by an early 20th-century expressionist that wound up at the MFA because she waited too long under Massachusetts law to file a claim.
At issue is "Two Nudes (Lovers)," by impressionist Oskar Kokoschka, which Dr. Oskar Reichel bought from the artist himself. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston acknowledged the exact reason why Reichel transferred ownership of the painting to a Jewish art dealer who had more luck getting out of Nazi-occupied Vienna "is not clear cut."
But, the judges continued, Claudia Seger-Thomschitz claim is governed by the Massachusetts three-year statute of limitations. And under a generous interpretation, she should have filed no later than 2006, three years after a Vienna museum agreed to given her other paintings Reichel sold under duress after the Nazis marched into Vienna. Because she did not formally seek the painting until 2007, she loses, the court ruled, noting that MFA information about the painting was readily available to the public.
Although the availability of some of these sources may not have been obvious to Seger-Thomschitz, who is a nurse with no specialized training in Nazi-era art claims, that fact does not excuse her delay. It was her burden under Massachusetts law to discover from the relevant professional communities whether she had a cognizable legal claim.
The court added:
Seger-Thomschitz did not submit her own affidavit to explain what she was doing between 2003 and 2007, a curious omission given that she is in the best position to account for that period. Her American attorney, whom she retained in 2006, submitted an affidavit in connection with her Rule 56(f) request in which he stated that Seger-Thomschitz and her Austrian attorney "had come to believe that all of the artwork that Oskar Reichel lost due to Nazi persecution had remained in Vienna and had been restituted." Of course, in light of all the publicly available information about the provenance of the Painting, a mistake of that sort does not delay the commencement of the limitations period. Any reasonable jury confronted with the summary judgment record would conclude that Seger-Thomschitz's causes of action accrued no later than the fall of 2003, when she learned that the Nazis had confiscated artworks from Dr. Reichel, and could then, with reasonable diligence, have discovered her claim to the Painting. Because she did not make a demand on the MFA until March 12, 2007, more than three years after her causes of action accrued, summary judgment was properly granted on the MFA's limitations defense.