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Karin Orenstein: My First Art Law Case

Karin Klapper Orenstein


  • Karin Orenstein, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, highlights her transition from a general litigator to a specialist in cultural property law. 
  • An early art law cases involved Egyptian antiquities seized at JFK International Airport, which led to her appointment as the point person for cultural property cases in the EDNY.
  • In the Civil Division, Orenstein became the office’s first Cultural Property Coordinator, handling cases involving art and artifacts.
Karin Orenstein: My First Art Law Case
Lya_Cattel via Getty Images

This is the first installment of a new series from the ABA Art and Cultural Heritage Law Committee, in which we interview professionals practicing art law about their careers.

Karin Orenstein received her J.D. from the University of Michigan, and spent 13 years with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York (EDNY), both in the Criminal and Civil divisions. In the Civil Division, she served as the office’s first Cultural Property Coordinator. Her most well-known cultural property case involved cuneiform tablets and other Iraqi artifacts imported by Hobby Lobby. Through her cases, she was able to forfeit and return art and artifacts to Iraq, Egypt, France, Italy, and Mongolia. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Can you provide an overview of your legal background and experience?

When I attended law school at University of Michigan, I knew I wanted to be a prosecutor, and my goal was to get to the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) to become an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA), so I focused on taking those classes, such as evidence, criminal law, and criminal procedure, that I knew litigators would take. I didn’t begin my career with any particular expertise or background in art law, cultural heritage law, international law, or customs law - but when you work as an AUSA, you practice in a number of different areas, and you learn as you go and can start to specialize if the stars line up.

I graduated in 2000, and started at the USAO in 2008. There was a two year moratorium on applying to work at the USAO after graduating law school; they would not even consider you in your first two years out of law school. So, I knew I had to do something else to build my resume for when I applied. And so, I did what I thought would be best for my resume, which was to go to a large New York City law firm. I spent a good part of my first year working on an arbitration. When it ended, I saw that my colleagues were all doing document review. I realized this was not going to improve my resume or get me the skills I needed to become an AUSA, but that instead a good path for me would be going to a white collar criminal defense firm - which I did, and I was able to get a lot of experience. I stayed with that firm for five years. When I was finally applying to the USAO, there was a hiring freeze, and I kind of had to decide - do I freeze my life or do I keep going when they’re doing nothing? And so in the two years from the day I sent in my application to the date that I started, I left my firm, volunteered as an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s (DA) office to, again, increase my skill set for leading my own cases, without a partner looking over my shoulder and getting it to court, and again, working on the criminal part of my resume, and had a baby. When I was ready to work, and still hadn’t heard from the USAO, I used my bar association connections to work for Sullivan & Worcester as a contract attorney, and they gave me great work and treated me as though I were a regular associate. And then, I finally heard from the USAO, and I got in.

Where does your interest in art and art law come from?

I don’t have any background in art or antiquities. In any litigation (it doesn't have to be criminal), you become the expert in something. It could be as small as what happens on the corner of 4th Street and Avenue A, on this day, at this time; or how does this business function; or what is this product, how does it work, what is its history.

With cultural property, the door opens to this whole other world of questions . . . When was this created? Who was the creator? What is it about? Why is it important? What have people done with it over time? What is the gray market doing with this now? How do these things travel around the world? How did they get here? Learning the history of something is just so much more interesting than being the expert of 4th Street and Avenue A at 2:00 in the morning. I loved learning about the individual artifacts and pieces of art as I went.

What was your first art law case?

The first year in the EDNY, you’re assigned in the Criminal Division to what’s called General Crimes. At first, they had me shadowing people, and then, eventually, I started to get my own cases. One day, an ICE (later known as Homeland Security Investigations) agent came to my office from JFK International Airport, which is in the Eastern District of New York in Queens. The case was dealing with prepaid credit card fraud. I was just starting out, and I had only 3 active cases at the time [later that year, I would have 35 active cases], so I worked very hard on it and gave my all to it; this really impressed the agent. She told me “Listen, Karin, this is not what I do, I was on duty that day and this case came in and I had to take it, but this isn’t what I do. I do the best, most interesting work at the airport. I do cultural property work. So, when somebody flies in with artifacts and art and they’re trying to hide it and lying about it to customs - that’s what I do. And it's the most interesting work. I have someone we bring cases to in SDNY who understands what I’m working on and can actually facilitate my cases, and I would like to have a point of contact in your office, and I would like it to be you.” I walked down the hall to my chief, and she and our Intake Chief said I could be the intake person for cultural property cases, and that was that. The next case that came into intake was from ICE’s Manhattan office and it involved Egyptian Antiquities, and it went straight to me.

How were you able to build your cultural property practice?

When I graduated from General Crimes, I wasn’t able to continue working on new cultural property cases. A few years later, an opportunity came up for me to switch to the forfeiture unit in my office, which is in the Civil Division. When they heard I was interested, the story is that the Deputy Chief tripped over her feet running to the Chief’s office saying “Do you think Karin will do the cultural property cases?” And I said “Of course!” Eventually, I became the Cultural Property Coordinator for the District. There hasn't been one since I left, but they definitely, you know, supported me growing the practice there.

It seems like, while a lot of your success is attributable to hard work and preparation, some of it really is just being at the right place at the right time.

I think that's so much of law practice - it's not just this area. Yes. You know, in the USAO, you would see it based on who got assigned to the senior local trial team. So basically, you get there, you've been there a few months, and you can be assigned to one of the biggest cases in the office and other people have worked on it for years. And it becomes a credit to you that you are part of that trial team. You know, that's luck.

What was your most significant or favorite art law case?

One that comes to mind is the Alioramus skull. The Alioramus skull was a Mongolian dinosaur fossil, and it was seized in my district when it was mailed here, and one of the fun things about my cases and having kids is that my kids would become experts. They just liked dinosaurs to begin with, but the Alioramus is a little bit of a less well-known dinosaur. But if you had asked my children, what is an Alioramus, they would have immediately told you. “It is a smaller cousin of a Tyrannosaurus.” And, the Alioramus case was actually the only case where I had people in my office asking if their kids could see it. I was able to arrange for the repatriation ceremony to be in our office, and our library looked like a mini museum. After the ceremonial signing, we invited the kids to come in, and we had a structured program for them with a Mongolian expert on dinosaurs speaking, and a dig pit. We were able to invite everyone in the office and from the agency who had kids, and also the Mongolian community in New York were invited through their Consulate. It’s one of my favorite cases because I was able to bring everybody in to be part of it.

We are so grateful to Karin Orenstein for her time and for sharing so much of her experience with us. We look forward to sharing our next interview and spotlighting another professional in this field in the upcoming edition of this Newsletter.