September 05, 2017

New Holocaust-related book examines law and ethics in current battles over Nazi art

CHICAGO, Sept. 5, 2017 — The dogged quest of Maria Altmann to retrieve her family’s collection of Gustav Klimpt art seized in Austria during the Nazi era is well known, celebrated in the 2015 highly acclaimed film, “Woman in Gold.”

Altmann’s fight with the Austrian government, as well as other examples of organized theft of fine art during the Nazi regime, are detailed in a new book, “A Tragic Fate: Law and Ethics in the Battle over Nazi-Looted Art,” by author and attorney Nicholas M. O’Donnell. Released by Ankerwycke, an imprint of the American Bar Association, the book provides the first comprehensive overview of looted art disputes in the United States and adds historical and ethical perspectives to art thefts that have gained worldwide attention in the past 20 years.

“A Tragic Fate” puts in context the continuum from the Nazis’ first legislation against Jews to the legal principles that have determined the outcome of some of these ongoing court disputes decades later. The Nazi looting of art and cultural property from Jews in Europe was unprecedented, ranging from a massive and organized plunder by the government for the benefit of German museums, to individual thefts by opportunists and Nazis. When the war ended, the Allies enacted a series of far-reaching laws and regulations to undo seizures of property from Jews. Yet, that effort did not extend to finding the individuals from whom the art had been taken, or their heirs.

After the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, new scholarship and attention culminated in the international Washington Conference on Nazi-Era Assets in 1998 and the announcement of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. These principles, and the ethical guidelines from museum associations, changed the perspective of the conversation on the need to find “fair and just solutions” for the victims of Nazi looting and their heirs.

Author O’Donnell is a partner in the litigation department of Sullivan & Worcester LLP in Boston. With a practice focusing primarily on complex civil litigation and art law, O’Donnell represents clients around the world in contract, securities, consumer protection, tort and domestic relations cases, as well as in the commercial art world and the restitution of Nazi-looted art. He is also the editor of the Art Law Report, a blog that provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the museum and visual arts communities.

Title:                             “A Tragic Fate: Law and Ethics in the Battle over Nazi-Looted Art”
Publisher:                    Ankerwycke
Pages:                         432
Product Code:             1620736
ISBN:                            9781634257336
Format:                         Hardcover
Price:                            $45
Orders:                        800-285-2221 or

What others are saying about ‘A Tragic Fate: Law and Ethics in the Battle over Nazi-Looted Art’

“(O'Donnell's) mastery of the relevant law is nothing short of stunning, and his meticulous parsing of legal detail leaves no stones unturned. ... A brilliant display of legal erudition, combined with historical incisiveness.” — Kirkus Reviews

“A comprehensive, detailed, up-to-date overview of the challenges that the heirs of Jewish collectors —whose art was stolen by the Nazis — face in U.S. courts and the successes and failures of the past. Mining his own practical experience in the complex field of Nazi-looted art, O’Donnell reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. His book is an essential reference for anyone considering U.S. legal action to recover Nazi-looted art — and as O’Donnell makes clear, such cases are likely to emerge for years to come.”Catherine Hickley, arts and culture journalist, historian, and author of “The Munich Art Hoard — Hitler’s Dealer and His Secret Legacy”

“O’Donnell delves deep into every case of Nazi-looted that has come before U.S. courtrooms, looking at the ethical and issues involved. He clearly explains the various strategies and tactics used by claimants, museums, and current owners in sometimes tense legal battles and analyzes their outcomes. Looking beyond the United States, he charts the responses to restitution questions in European countries, which vary from token to downright hostile. The book is recommended for anyone seeking an overview of this most tragic subject from the U.S. legal perspective and the efforts to return art to its rightful owners — which continue to this day.”Georgina Adam, art market editor-at-large, The Art Newspaper; art market contributor, The Financial Times; author, “Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century”

Editor’s note: Author interviews and review copies of this book are available by emailing Dean Pappas at If you publish a review of this book, please send tear sheets or a copy for our files to Dean Pappas, ABA Book Publishing, 321 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60654.

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