Lost and Found: Returning Stolen Art and Cultural Artifacts

After GW Magazine published a story titled “Saving Grace” in its winter 2011 issue that featured art detective Charles Hill, CCAS BA ’71, we heard from several other alums also involved in returning stolen art and artifacts to their rightful owners.

We were interested to learn how:

  • L. Eden Burgess, LAW JD ’00, tackles art and art restitution in the courtroom;
  • Gary Kozlusky, GWSB MBA ’01, oversees a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency program to return cultural artifacts; and
  • Danna (Brennan) Van Brandt, CCAS BA ’01, helped with cultural restoration efforts in Iraq while serving as public diplomacy officer.

When L. Eden Burgess, LAW JD ’00, started practicing law, she never expected to be involved in art theft and restitution cases, let alone one dating back to the Holocaust-era that would make legal history.

Ms. Burgess, an associate at Andrews Kurth LLP in Washington, D.C., originally focused on environmental issues and patent litigation, but progressed into larger intellectual property cases. She wasn’t exposed to art theft and restitution law until she teamed up with Tom Kline, a trailblazer in this area who’s handled these types of cases for more than 20 years. (Mr. Kline also teaches in GW’s Museum Studies department.)

One of the most interesting cases the two took on – which ultimately changed the course of art restitution law – was representing the estate of Max Stern, an art dealer who was forced by the Nazis in the 1930s to sell more than 200 works of art, well below their value.

“The estate’s stated mission is to try to gather up all the objects that the art gallery in Dusseldorf was ordered to sell,” Ms. Burgess says.

Decades after Dr. Stern’s passing, the Canadian-based estate learned that a German baroness living in Rhode Island was in possession of one of his pieces, Girl from the Sabiner Mountains by Franz Xaver Winterhalter; it was discovered that the baroness’s stepfather had purchased the work at the auction in 1937.

According to Ms. Burgess, in art restitution “the passage of time is generally biggest hurdle.”

In this case Ms. Burgess and Mr. Kline had the added challenge of establishing that a forced sale is equivalent to theft – but in 2008, they did just that. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, and its decision was the first time a U.S. court ruled that a forced sale is a theft and title does not transfer to the buyer.

“To us it may seem obvious, but from legal perspective it is a very important holding,” she says.

Today Ms. Burgess spends about 80 percent of her time on art restitution cases, representing “any kind of party you can think of in an art case,” including auction houses, collectors, and domestic and foreign museums, and tackling a wide variety of issues. This coming spring she will also teach a course – Art, Cultural Heritage and the Law – in GW’s Law School.

The course will touch on copyright and First Amendment issues, how museums operate, how much control governments can assert, warranties provided by buyers and sellers, as well as addressing some cultural heritage issues.

“It’s a growing area [of law],” Ms. Burgess says. “It’s all very fascinating, and all the cases are a little different.”

Gary KozluskyWhen thinking about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency with the Department of Homeland Security, one’s mind does not usually jump to the works of Edgar Degas or Andy Warhol, or items like an 1898 Borchardt Luger pistol, dinosaur eggs, a bookmark belonging to Hitler or pre-Columbian artifacts.

But, because of their authority to enforce customs laws, ICE’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations and Repatriations Program – overseen by Gary Kozlusky, GWSB MBA ’01 – has recovered and returned these objects and thousands more.

As a Unit Chief in the Office of International Affairs – and working with Homeland Security Investigations – Mr. Kozlusky and his staff are responsible for training agents, coordinating investigations, and hopefully organizing the return of items to their home countries.

“It’s so different from the typical immigration and customs investigations that agents are used to dealing with,” he says of art and antiquity investigations. The training focuses on laws, case studies, and how to handle items, from photography to storage to transportation.

Prior to his promotion to unit chief, Mr. Kozlusky coordinated the logistics and planning for several cultural repatriation events, including the return of an ancient marble sculpture of the Roman Emperor (pictured with Mr. Kozlusky above) to the Algerian government.

His team also coordinates the investigation itself, which includes identifying the item and determining whether it was stolen or imported illegally, and it often involves working with other government organizations, such as the Department of State, Customs and Border Protection, the FBI – and INTERPOL.

“Once an investigation is complete, [the item] gets seized and forfeited, and it legally becomes the property of the U.S. Government,” yet the work isn’t over, he explains, as there are still questions to be answered: “Who does it belong to, and how do we give it back?”

When all the pieces fall into place, his team organizes the return of items to their home countries. Sometimes repatriation ceremonies are held abroad; other times they’re held at their embassy in the U.S.

“The [repatriation ceremony] varies depending on the item and the relationship to the country,” he says, noting a recent ceremony that took place at the Embassy of Belize in September. A pre-Columbian feasting bowl, crafted by Mayan Indians, was returned during an event that celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Belize’s independence from England.

Since 2007, more than $100 million in stolen artwork and cultural property has been recovered and 2,500 objects have been repatriated to more than 22 countries.

But just as interesting as the items that are returned, he says, are those that can’t be returned.

“There are also a number of items we can’t return,” he says, citing a 7th century BC silver Rhyton (ceremonial drinking vessel) from what is now Iran, because “we don’t have diplomatic relations with them.”

Mr. Kozlusky spearheads many other initiatives and projects for ICE, often drawing on the lessons and experiences he had at GW.

“There were a lot of things I got from my MBA program that really helped me,” he says. “It’s extremely versatile in federal employment; it’s not just for business.”

As a Foreign Services officer, Danna (Brennan) Van Brandt, CCAS BA ’01, knew she would have a challenging and diverse global career. Since March 2003, she’s taken assignments in Bangladesh (where she was the first American Foreign Service Officer to give a television interview in Bengali, the local language), Sierra Leone, and most recently, Iraq.

In September 2010, she began a 12-month assignment in Baghdad – one month in the Embassy Public Affairs Section and the other 11 as a public diplomacy officer on the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). While there she worked on many educational and cultural projects, including helping Iraqi women sell their woven rugs to the American community, coordinating a conference for NGOs and helping the Baghdad Museum of Modern Art open a woodworking section.

She was also part of a project to document stolen Iraqi artwork.

In 2003, with the authorities focused on the Iraq War, more than 8,500 paintings and sculptures were stolen from the Baghdad Museum of Modern Art. Years later, to raise awareness about these cultural losses, Iraqi artist and Director of the museum Salam Atta Sabri applied to the PRT for a grant to produce a book ultimately titled The Red List.

“I came in at the editing phase,” she says, noting that the book took approximately 18 months to complete from the time the grant was awarded. She also prepared the electronic version, arranged its launching and coordinated press coverage.

Providing a sample of more than 100 artworks from the 20th century, Ms. Van Brandt says the goal is to distribute the publication around the world to those involved in tracking down stolen artwork.

Since its release in April 2011, one piece has already been returned: a four-panel, oil-on-canvas painting, “The Lost City,” by Dhia Al-Azzawi, one of the most famous and active painters in Baghdad.

“The painting was returned with the help of the U.S. Mission in Dubai and a private
Emirati citizen,” says Ms. Van Brandt.

Ms. Van Brandt left Baghdad at the end of August 2011 to return to the U.S. for about nine months to prepare and train for her next assignment – a three-year term as cultural affairs officer in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“Brazil is an incredibly diverse country, and I hope that the shared value of cultural diversity will serve as a basis for great programs,” she says.

–Christine Cole

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