Museum Ethics

Paul Gauguin's Street in Tahiti
Paul Gauguin's Street in Tahiti is in the Toledo Museum of Art. 

Best Practices and Real Events

In recent years, museums in the United States began bringing suits against claimants to items in their collections. Instead of engaging in mutual and thorough provenance research, these museums are taking preemptive legal actions challenging claims and seeking judicial affirmation that the claims are invalid because of technicalities. For example, in 2006 the Toledo Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Art chose to file suit for "quiet title" to paintings by van Gogh and Gauguin being claimed by a community of heirs, claiming the statute of limitations as a bar to judicial intervention.

The Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation followed with nearly an identical suit in 2008 in the Schoeps claim to paintings by Picasso, claiming that the passage of time had prejudiced its ability to defend on the merits. In 2009, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston obtained a judgment against a claimant who sought Oskar Kokoschka's Lovers.

The museum's case was based on the statute of limitations and not on the merits. The Museum of Modern Art did the same in a case by the Grosz heirs. See ARTNews article, November 17, 2011.

This practice appears to violate the spirit of the American Association of Museums' guidelines, which clearly spell out the obligations of the museums to cooperate with claimants of Holocaust-Era Assets. While the practice to scare claimants with expensive litigation costs has a potential of deterring frivolous claims, it also threatens those with legitimate claims from approaching museums even if they have no intention to bring lawsuits. The museums’ refusal to allow courts to review their unilateral decisions against claimants is inconsistent with the Terezin Declaration and The Washington Principles.

Press & Scholarly