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Obama Signs Into Law Legislation Protecting Works of Art Imported into US for Exhibitions

First introduced into the House of Representatives in 2012, a version of a bill granting immunity to foreign states from federal or state court jurisdiction for any activity in the United States associated with a temporary exhibition or display of a work of art or other object of cultural significance has been signed into law by President Obama.

Per the US government’s govtrack site, the only exceptions to this immunity from prosecution are in cases concerning property taken in violation of international law in which judicial action is based upon a claim that the work was taken either between January 30, 1933, and May 8, 1945, by the government of Germany or any government in Europe occupied, assisted, or allied by the German government, or after 1900 in connection with the acts of a foreign government as part of a systematic campaign of coercive confiscation or misappropriation of works from members of a targeted and vulnerable group. If seeking to deny the new immunity protections in any case brought, a court will have to determine that the activity associated with the exhibition or display of imported artworks is commercial in order to exercise jurisdiction over any foreign state.

Sophia Kishkovsky notes in the Art Newspaper that the bill was supported by the American Association of Art Museum Directors. Their executive director, Christine Anagnos, said that they support the legislation because “it will help to ensure that foreign government lenders are not discouraged from lending works of art to American museums.” There are opponents of the new law though as well, such as Marc Masurovsky, a cofounder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. Once the law is passed, he claims it “will make it virtually impossible for a ‘source nation,’ an indigenous tribe or any victim of totalitarian regimes whose property was confiscated to go before a US court and seek redress and recover his or her property.” Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, hopes that the new law will allow loans between the US and Russia to begin again, as he believes that the bill “allows, as it seems to us, for the American government to give guarantees… an exhibition has arrived [in the US] and an exhibition will [return to Russia] no matter what. The whole world gives such guarantees.”

He further noted that the Hermitage and US museums have “many mutual projects” that have been put on hold. Loans between the two counties ground to a halt after 2011, when a US federal judge ruled that Russia must give back a collection of books seized by the Bolsheviks to the Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish community that fled the Soviet Union. The country refused, and from there major US museums stopped lending works to Russia.