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UVA alumni tackle the complicated issue of Nazi-looted art

Illustration by Kevin McFadin

In 1928, Magda Mandel, a Hungarian Jew, donned a colorful striped sweater, rested her hand on her head and smiled for a personal family portrait. It’s a happy moment captured by a local painter that preceded tragedy. In 1944, Mandel’s family and other Jewish people who lived in Ungvar, Hungary—now Uzhhorod, Ukraine—were sent to Auschwitz. Mandel survived, but her parents died and her family’s possessions, including the painting, were lost.

Today that painting is part of the collection of a Ukrainian museum in her hometown, but Mandel’s name isn’t attached to it. It’s simply called A Portrait of a Young Artist, and attorney Irina Tarsis (Com ’01) is working to get it back to her family.

Tarsis is among the UVA alumni who dive deep into the history of Nazi-looted art and the horrific circumstances that often separated the pieces from their original owners. She cultivated a passion for provenance, tracing objects from one owner to the next, while working with UVA Professor Terry Belanger in the rare book collection at Alderman Library.

Others fell into the work. But they are all compelled by personal stories like Mandel’s and their interest in this complex avenue of the law. And at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, the cases keep its devastating consequences in the spotlight and provide some restitution for families.

“I think the phrase ‘never forget’ may be more important than ever,” says William L. Charron (Law ’98), who co-chairs the art law practice at Pryor Cashman in New York and teaches art law at UVA’s law school. “And these cases certainly help you remember.” 

‘Harder to prove’

In addition to the horrific state-led murder and mistreatment of millions of Jews, the Third Reich conducted the organized plundering of their belongings, including artwork. The cases became more pronounced in the legal field in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall triggered the opening of troves of Nazi documents, Charron says. But despite the Nazis’ often meticulous record-keeping, the cases can be hard-fought and hardly clear-cut.

“Every year that passes is another year away from the facts, and it just gets harder to prove,” says L. Eden Burgess (Col ’96), a partner with Cultural Heritage Partners, which works on legal challenges related to cultural heritage. The firm’s founding partners include Greg Werkheiser (Law ’00).

L. Eden Burgess (top), Irina Tarsis (bottom)

The passage of time, however, hasn’t stopped UVA alumni from making inroads in this particularly challenging part of the law. 

Burgess was involved in a precedent-setting case that determined that a forced sale by a Jewish owner during WWII is the same as a theft. The 2008 holding from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit is considered a landmark because often current owners have obtained the art through seemingly lawful means.

Burgess helped represent the estate of Max Stern, an art dealer who was forced by the Nazis to sell his collection in the 1930s. In 2005, one of those pieces turned up among the belongings of a German baroness whose stepfather had purchased it in 1937. She had consigned the painting to a Rhode Island auction house.

“The import of the … holding is that if you can establish that it was forced, title doesn’t transfer,” Burgess says. “And that’s a very important concept.” 

But not every sale then by Jewish owners was under duress. Charron has successfully represented good faith owners. In one case, he tracked the movement of a drawing from a Holocaust victim to his sister-in-law, who sold it after the war. 

“The fact patterns that you get into, they could be movies, they could be novels, they are gripping and tragic,” Charron says. “But there are also these cases where you can disprove theft, which, in a way, it’s not only rewarding for my client, but it’s rewarding to be able to vindicate a work in that way.” 

Righting wrongs

These court cases, however, can be lengthy, costly and uncertain for both sides. “There are lots of moving pieces,” Tarsis says. “There are so many facts that are unclear and muddied.” 

But UVA alumni have been working to make a difference here too. In 2018, Charron founded the Hague-based Court of Arbitration for Art. It relies on experienced art law practitioners around the globe to consider art law disputes related to authentication, copyright, ownership and other issues through mediation and arbitration. 

And in the early 2000s, Owen C. Pell (Law ’83), who devoted part of his practice to Holocaust-looted art, devised a title-clearing and dispute resolution body to hear claims about Nazi-stolen art. The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to study his proposal, which hasn’t moved forward.

It remains an important issue to tackle, he says. In addition to righting wrongs from the Holocaust, it could prevent the kind of massive wealth transfer that occurred during World War II in future genocides.

“We would love it if people inclined to commit genocide in the future understood that nothing they looted would be marketable,” says Pell, who is now president of the nonprofit Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

A Portrait of a Young Artist shows Magda Mandel in 1928.  Courtesy Irina Tarsis

Mandel’s story

But away from the landmark cases or international tribunals, the work for UVA alumni in the field often boils down to the quiet task of delving into the individual stories of people like Magda Mandel and the art.

The painting’s movements after the Mandels were deported aren’t entirely clear, but Tarsis, who also is founder of the Center for Art Law, has clues. The painting has abrasion marks, which isn’t surprising, says Tarsis, as the homes of Jewish families were unceremoniously emptied after the owners were sent to death camps. 

And at some point, the piece was back in the artist’s hands. In 1948, he lent it and other works to the local Ukrainian museum and later sold it to the institution. Mandel, who eventually moved to the United States, died in 1975. One of her relatives saw the painting hanging in the museum several years ago.

Tarsis, who is from Ukraine, would love to see an exhibition featuring this family heirloom, a diary that Mandel wrote of her experiences, and other information about Hungarian Jews during WWII—to highlight her story and the stories of others who lost so much at the hands of the Nazis and often remain anonymous.

“It’s a painting described as Ukrainian national property,” she says. “But the person who is depicted is not part of the narrative, not Ukrainian, erased from the story. That’s one of the reasons I’m involved in art law. … It’s important to remember that objects have history beyond their auction results.”