Nazi-looted art

A Taipei Museum’s Valuable Hi-Res Art Scans Have Been Leaked Online + Other Stories

Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Thursday, March 16.


Zurich Museum to Scrutinize Its Own Collection – The Kunsthaus Zurich is stepping up its efforts in provenance research to root out works held unlawfully as a result of Nazi persecution. Its new approach includes “improved transparency” and the appointment of an independent commission of experts on provenance, who will help investigate the origin of some 203 works on show at the museum. Research results are expected to be published in spring 2024. (Swiss Info)

Miami Art Dealer Sentenced for Ivory Smuggling – Eduardo Ulises Martinez was found guilty on nine counts of smuggling ivory sculptures without declaring them to the U.S. authorities, and one count of obstruction of justice. A federal judge sentenced Martinez to 51 months in prison, and ordered him to pay a $20,000 fine. The U.S. implemented a ban on elephant ivory trade in 2016, and Martinez was caught with ivory in his luggage at the Miami International Airport in 2021. (ARTnews)

Leaked Hi-Res Art Scans From Taiwan Museum Show Up for Sale – The National Palace Museum in Taipei confirmed that up to 100,000 high-resolution images of paintings and calligraphy from its collection of historic Chinese artworks have been leaked online. Some of them, which the museum had been licensing for between $98 and $850, were available for sale on mainland Chinese online shopping platform Taobao for less than $1.50. (CNN)

FBI Returns Cache of Stolen Guns to Museums – Authorities recovered at least 50 firearms and other historical artifacts that went missing for half a century hidden in an attic in Delaware. They have been repatriated to 16 museums. (Delaware Online)


Masterworks Acquires Arthena – The art investment platform specialized in fractionalization has acquired Arthena, a data collection, analysis, and pricing platform with expertise  in data engineering and machine learning infrastructure for the art market. (Press release

Columbus Museum of Art Names Director – The Ohio-based institution has named Brooke A. Minto as its next executive director and CEO. Minto served as the inaugural director of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums, which was founded in 2020 to encourage dialogue between Black museum trustees. She begins her role on May 15, succeeding Nannette Maciejunes who retired in 2022 after two decades. (Press release)

Lio Malca Expands – The veteran art-world dealer and collector is moving his gallery space from Chelsea to the newly-minted gallery hub of Tribeca at 60 White Street. The multistory exhibition space, a 19th century building undergoing a facelift by design firm studioMDA, will launch this May with a show of Spanish painter Rafa Macarrón. (Press release)


Venus Williams and Adam Pendleton Organize Benefit – The tennis star and artist are teaming up to raise funds to restore Nina Simone’s North Carolina-based clapboard home, a project led by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Artists including Julie Mehretu, Stanley Whitney, Cecily Brown, and Rashid Johnson are donating work for the sale, which will be held at Sotheby’s online from May 12-22, with a corresponding IRL gala hosted by Pace. (The Art Newspaper)

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In a Precedent-Setting Move, the Supreme Court Denies Jewish Heirs’ Attempt to Reclaim the $250 Million Guelph Treasure

The US Supreme Court has ruled against the heirs of a consortium of Jewish collectors who allege that their families were forced to sell the Guelph Treasure, a collection of Medieval devotional objects now valued at upwards of $250 million, to Nazis in the 1930s.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the collectors will not be able to secure the 42 silver artifacts’ return through the US legal system based on the case presented during oral arguments in December, reports Bloomberg Law. The decision could impact Holocaust-era restitution cases for decades to come.

Alan Philipp, Gerald Stiebel, and Jed Leiber, the heirs of the Guelph Treasure’s former owners, had sued Germany for restitution on the grounds that the transaction was among the many forced sales of artworks by Jews living under the Nazi regime. The treasure is held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or SPK), which runs Berlin’s state museums, and is on view at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts.

In general, other countries cannot be sued in US court, according to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The plaintiffs’ case rested on whether or not the sale of the Guelph Treasure could be considered an “expropriation exception,” where property was taken “in violation of international law.”

The arm reliquary of St. Sigismund from the Guelph Treasure. Photo ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum/Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin.

The arm reliquary of St. Sigismund from the Guelph Treasure. Photo ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum/Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin.

But the court found that “the law of takings”—which has previously been used to secure the return of four Gustav Klimt canvases, including his famed Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), to refugee Maria Altmann—did not apply here.

The heirs had argued that the treasure’s forced sale violated international law as an act of genocide. But the court found that the only international law covered by the exception is property law, and that the seizure of a property belonging to a country’s own citizens is a domestic matter, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of US law.

“We need not decide whether the sale of the consortium’s property was an act of genocide, because the expropriation exception is best read as referencing the international law of expropriation rather than of human rights,” chief justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. “We do not look to the law of genocide to determine if we have jurisdiction over the heirs’ common law property claims. We look to the law of property.”

During oral arguments, Nicolas O’Donnell, attorney for the heirs, argued that excluding acts of genocide from the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act would imply that “Congress intended to disadvantage the Nazi’s first victims, German Jews. This makes no sense.”

A Guelph Treasure Crucifix, currently on display at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, or Kunstgewerbemuseum. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A Guelph Treasure Crucifix, currently on display at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, or Kunstgewerbemuseum. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Roberts countered: “The exception places repeated emphasis on property and property-related rights, while injuries and acts we might associate with genocide are notably lacking,” he wrote. “That would be remarkable if the provision were intended to provide relief for atrocities such as the Holocaust.”

The long-running battle over the treasure originated in Germany in 2008, but the heirs were unable to secure the treasure’s return. The German Advisory Commission on Nazi-looted art found in a non-binding 2014 ruling that the sale had not taken place under duress. The plaintiffs tried again in US court the following year. Despite a German motion to dismiss the case, a Washington, DC, district court agreed to hear the dispute—a decision upheld twice upon appeal before the case landed in the country’s highest court.

The case has now been sent back down to a district court to determine whether the dispute can be adjudicated on other grounds. One potential avenue, raised by the plaintiff during the oral arguments in December, is the question of whether the art dealers were considered German nationals at the time of the sale. If, as Jews, their German citizenship was considered invalid, then the law of domestic takings would no longer apply.

“My clients are obviously disappointed in the court’s ruling,” O’Donnell told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email. “We are considering our next steps for when the case returns to the district court.”

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