U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York repatriated two Julian Falat paintings on September 22, transferring them to President Bronisław Komorowski of Poland in a ceremony held at the Polish Consulate in New York. American and Polish officials said that the Nazis stole “The Hunt” and “Off to the Hunt” from Warsaw’s Polish National Museum during the era of World War II.
In 2006, the Polish government found the paintings at two auction houses in New York, which removed them from sale when notified. Authorities acquired the paintings this past August after a federal district court in Manhattan entered a default judgment in the U.S. government’s favor. Federal officials then turned the paintings over to Poles.
"No one can ever provide just compensation to the victims of the Nazis' atrocities, but it is very gratifying for our office to play a role in returning the art that they looted during World War II to its rightful owners," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement. "After 60 years, these national treasures will finally be returned to the Polish Government—a repatriation that would not have been possible without their help."
The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed an in rem forfeiture action against the paintings on December 13, 2010 in order to acquire the artworks. (In a court proceeding for civil forfeiture, the defendant is the property, not a person.) In its complaint, the prosecution alleged that there was probable cause for forfeiture. Assistant US Attorney Kan Nawaday specifically described how “Off to the Hunt” was removed from the National Museum without its frame during World War II. A frame for the artwork originally contained an inked inventory mark, the number 345, when the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw placed it there in 1904. The frame survives. “The Hunt,” meanwhile, was also transferred to the National Museum when the German SS confiscated the painting. A catalog record and photograph of the artwork still exists.
The Polish government published a catalog of looted art in 1951 following the Second World War. It described both paintings. Since 1989, the Polish government continued to post the loss of “Off to the Hunt” and “The Hunt” on the internet. The paintings surfaced when Christie’s and Doyle New York, respectively, offered them for auction.
The federal complaint explained that an HSI agent spoke with the consignor of “Off to the Hunt,” whose name was supplied to the Polish government by Christie’s. The consignor had no purchase records and no import paperwork, according to the complaint. Additionally, HSI’s own search of customs records could not find any information related to the import.
HSI was also in contact with the attorney for the consignor of “The Hunt.” The federal complaint described how HSI “spoke with employees of Doyle . . . who informed them that the consignor . . . had brought the painting in for appraisal unframed and wrapped in an old sheet. Additionally . . . employees advised that [the consignor] had provided conflicting stories about how she came in possession of the painting.” HSI itself could find no importation records relating to the painting, according to court papers.
The federal forfeiture complaint stated that each Falat painting was valued at $50,000.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office argued that the paintings could be lawfully forfeited under four alternative legal theories. First, the works of art could be forfeited under 18 USC 981(a)(1)(C) because they were proceeds arising from a violation(s) of the National Stolen Property Act. Second, they could be forfeited under 19 USC 1497(a)(1) because there was no declaration of entry made on any customs form when imported into the United States. Third, they could be forfeited pursuant to 19 USC 1595a(C)(1)(a) because there was probable cause to believe that they were imported in violation of the federal smuggling law or the National Stolen Property Act. Fourth, the paintings could be forfeited because there was “probable cause to believe that they were brought to the United States contrary to law, the possessors of the Defendant Paintings [were] aware that they were stolen and are attempting to offer the Defendant Paintings for sale . . . .”
The government won its case by default after the paintings’ possessors failed to contest the forfeiture complaint. The court granted judgment on August 3, 2011.
"Those paintings are two magnificent and very important pieces of art," said Bogdan Zdrojewski, minister of culture and national heritage of Poland. "If you think about all the Falat paintings, these two are definitely the most interesting and most valuable ones," the minister was quoted as saying in a September 22, 2011 ICE press release.
But at least one of the paintings is not one that the Nazis looted, according to assertions made in a July 1, 2011 letter and attachments sent to the federal court by the possessor of “Off to the Hunt.” She wrote that “a technical analysis of my painting put[s] into severe doubt that my painting and [the Polish government’s] lost painting were one and the same.” She objected to the “far-from-thorough ICE investigation and . . . U.S. Civil laws designed to trap criminals and not good-faith possessors of disputed objects . . .” She also wrote of her inability to enlist her insurer or an affordable attorney to help defend the court action.
In letters addressed to NY Senator Charles Schumer dated June 23 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated June 27 (both contained in the public court file) the possessor made a variety of statements, including the following:
• she was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor,
• she inherited “Off to the Hunt” from her father who bought it in Paris before transporting it to the USA in 1948,
• the “lost painting and mine are two originals by the same painter,” and
• it was improper for the government to imply that she and/or her father may have been “bad faith” possessors of the work.
HSI Executive Associate Director James Dinkins, meanwhile, said in a September 2011 press statement that his agency was “deeply gratified to be able to return these cherished paintings that were taken from the people of Poland so long ago.”
Photo courtesy of ICE.