Which Eph alum best puts his or her Williams education to use in the blog format? A leading contender has to be Nicholas O’Donnell ’97, a partner at the law firm of Sullivan & Worcester, and head of their thriving art law practice.  Bar associations and legal publications constantly encourage lawyers to promote themselves with a blog, but few do so decently, and hardly any with the verve of O’Donnell, whose legal career draws on his education as both an undergraduate and graduate student in art history at Williams.

The Art Law Report is O’Donnell’s blog, and 2015 is a timely point at which to begin reading because O’Donnell  is the lead counsel in one of the biggest cases in art law, and he’s been posting about his efforts to overcome — after eight decades — continuing wrongs perpetrated by the Nazis.

As O’Donnell explained two months ago:

I filed yesterday a new civil action against the Federal Republic of Germany and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (the SPK, which is responsible the administration of the Berlin museums, among other things) in the United States District Court in Washington, DC… The lawsuit seeks the immediate restitution to my clients of the collection held by the SPK known as the Welfenschatz, or as it is referred to in English, the Guelph Treasure. My clients Gerald Stiebel and Alan Phillip are the blood relatives and successors to the consortium of Jewish art dealers who were threatened and forced by the National Socialist government into selling the Welfenschatz in 1935.

A little quick background that the court documents we have submitted will verify: The Welfenschatz was sold to the Consortium by its previous owners in 1929. After selling about half the collection of their own free will before 1933, the situation for the Consortium changed quickly and drastically after the Nazi seizure of power. The Consortium was suddenly targeted by a concerted campaign of the National Socialists to acquire property they believed was of German heritage and not fit to be owned by Jews, though of course those Jews were until then German citizens too. There were many, many recorded instances in which the Jews of Germany were stripped of their property. And in this case, it was an organized effort that ran from the mayor of Frankfurt (where they lived) all the way up to Goering and Hitler personally. Eventually, the Consortium relented under intense pressure and sold the collection under duress for a fraction of its actual value. The proceeds were paid into accounts that were in actuality blocked, and the Consortium’s members were subjected to further intimidation and the infamous flight taxes, which are described in a Gestapo document included in yesterday’s court filing. After the acquisition, Goering made a great public gesture of presenting the Welfenschatz to Hitler as a personal gift, and was even featured in news reports at the time. It has remained in Berlin ever since, now held by the SPK.

Quite simply, the Welfenschatz belongs to my clients. The transaction forced upon the Consortium was illegitimate as a matter of German and international law, and it had and has no validity whatsoever. My clients attempted in good faith to obtain the return of the collection by participating in mediation with the Advisory Commission, but despite presenting conclusive and unopposed evidence of the oppression that they faced and the inadequate sum they received, the Advisory Commission refused last year to recommend restitution, and the SPK likewise refused to return it…

The SPK can only contest our claims by arguing that the 1935 sale was legitimate, a tactic that it regrettably has employed in the past. Since the Allied victory in 1945 the law has been clear, however: any sale by a Jewish owner after 1933 was presumptively under duress. That is to say, unless Germany proves otherwise, my clients win. But Germany cannot prove, and it should not try to prove, that a conspiracy to take the Consortium’s property—a conspiracy spearheaded by Hermann Goering—was in any way a non-coerced, normal marketplace transaction. It was not.



(O’Donnell on the left, as pictured at Art Law Report)

In a follow-up post, O’Donnell rounded up press coverage of the Guelph Treasure lawsuit (including in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, an interview on WBUR, and more), responded to public statements by defendants, and noted the remarkable leakage of anti-Semitic views into German press coverage of the lawsuit:

It bears noting that some of the coverage, regrettably (and all of it in German, none of it below) has perpetuated long-promulgated stereotypes with references about Jews and money, or questioned why my clients would want “Christian” art, or challenging their victimhood because they were in the business of selling art.  These should be beneath any serious discourse in 2015; no one would challenge the persecution of a factory owner who had to sell his or her inventory under duress.  Some reports even challenge the good faith of our case by relying on “experts” who refuse to identify themselves.

My clients want justice, and they would not have come this far if they could be dissuaded by name-calling.  Their quest will continue.

The Art Law Report is much more than coverage of O’Donnell’s own litigation, of course. Recent posts have covered the Detroit Institute of Art’s controversial deaccessioning decisions  and efforts to pass resale copyright legislation, among other issues. But the Guelph Treasure lawsuit is a great entree into the fascinating world of art law and a glimpse of the professional career of yet another star — albeit legal, not curatorial — in the continuing art world dominance of the Eph Art Mafia.

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