The recent arrest of art dealer, Alexander Khokinsky, in Paris at the request of Poland, raises questions about how to go about either clearing the title to artwork or negotiating the return of looted artwork. Khokinsky received the piece, the Antoine Pesne painting Girl with Dove (1754) from his father, a WW II veteran who purchased it after the war ended. Recently, a Polish Museum listed a description of a work that matches the painting. Khokinsky approached the Polish Government to negotiate terms for the return of the artwork. This was complicated by the ongoing dispute Khokinsky has over claims for family land in Poland that was seized by the Nazis during WW II.
In a law suit filed in Washington, DC, Khokinsky claimed that the Polish Government was retaliating against him by making the claim that the painting was looted. The Polish Government’s response was to issue a warrant that was executed by the French Government on Monday, February 25, 2019. If extradited, Khokinsky will face the Polish Judiciary which is criticized by other EU countries after the Polish Government tried to force the resignation of the majority of the judges in 2018.
The question of what a private individual should do, or even a government should do, when they own looted art seems to be clear: it should be repatriated, but in reality repatriation is often the exception in these cases.
Nicholas M. O’Donnell, Mr. Khokinsky’s lawyer, is also the author of the book A Tragic Fate: Law and Ethics in the Battle over Nazi-Looted Art. In his book, Mr. O’Donnell describes that, even though the Washington Conference of 1998 commits governments to “fair and equitable” resolution of completing claims, governments often ignore this moral and ethical standard on the ownership of art and instead raise legal issues that are skewed in their favor to retain or acquire looted art, generally at the expense of the individual.
This could be further complicated when the artwork has been sold at auction. Regardless of how long ago the sale took place, the buyer of what proves to be looted art can seek to recover the amount paid for the artwork, against the seller, but not the auction house. This a very real risk as so many veterans of WW II are passing away, and as their family seek to sell or gift artwork or other collectibles for which they have no title records, or title insurance, for items acquired during or after the chaos that existed in the middle of the 20th century, not only in Europe but also in Asia. Careful planning can help owners and their families anticipate this risk and take advantage of negotiated settlements with claimants, public and private.
I do not know if any planning would have helped Mr. Khokinsky in his multi-layered dispute with the Polish Government but I hope that they will both come to the fair and equitable solution set by the Washington Conference both for the painting and for the other claims.