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In re Estate of Stettiner

Supreme Court of New York, First Department

February 14, 2017

In re Estate of Oscar Stettiner, Deceased International Art Center, Petitioner-Appellant,
The Estate of Oscar Stettiner, et al., Respondents-Respondents.

         Petitioner appeals from the order of the Surrogate's Court, New York County (Nora S. Anderson, S.), entered August 10, 2015, which dismissed the petition to revoke ancillary letters of administration issued to respondent George W. Gowen.

          Aaron Richard Golub, Esquire, P.C., New York (Nehemiah S. Glanc of counsel), for appellant.

          McCarthy Fingar LLP, White Plains (Phillip C. Landrigan of counsel), for respondents.

          Peter Tom, J.P. Rolando T. Acosta, Richard T. Andrias, Karla Moskowitz, Marcy L. Kahn, JJ.


          TOM, J.P.

         The genesis of this litigation was in 1939, when, with the Nazi invasion imminent, decedent Oscar Stettiner, a Jewish art collector, abruptly fled Paris, leaving his art collection behind. His art collection was later sold by the Nazis, including an early twentieth century painting by the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, which Stettiner's heir seeks to recover. The issue before this Court is whether petitioner International Art Center, S.A. (IAC), which purchased the painting in 1996 for $3.2 million, has standing to challenge the ancillary letters of administration issued to the heir's representative for purposes of commencing litigation to recover the painting. We hold that petitioner lacks standing, and that, in any event, the limited ancillary letters were properly issued.

         In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States and its allies took on the task of locating and returning the many great works of art systematically looted by the Nazis. While millions of works were recovered and returned to the rightful owners, individual Holocaust victims and their heirs have struggled for decades to obtain restitution.

         The efforts to recover these treasures have been recently popularized in movies including 2014's "Monuments Men, " and 2015's "Woman in Gold, " which chronicled Maria Altmann's pursuit of her family's paintings looted in Austria, including Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele" (1907), of which Altmann won restitution following litigation that reached the United States Supreme Court (see Republic of Austria v Altmann, 541 U.S. 677');">541 U.S. 677 [2004]).

         While this great theft may have taken place more than 70 years ago, a resolution was not possible until a combination of scholarship and technology allowed for the creation of databases compiling lists of missing works, and until nations agreed to international guidelines on art restitution such as those laid out in the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. Even at the tail end of 2016, the United States Congress felt it necessary to pass additional legislation to aid victims of Holocaust-era persecution and their heirs to recover works of art confiscated or misappropriated by the Nazis, and to ensure that claims to artwork and other property stolen or misappropriated by the Nazis are not unfairly barred by statutes of limitations but are resolved in a just and fair manner. This legislation became law on December 16, 2016 (see Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 (Pub L 114-308, 130 U.S. Stat 1524, amending 22 USC § 1621 et seq.).

         The painting at issue is known as "Seated Man With a Cane" (1918) and is currently owned by petitioner. It is alleged to have been confiscated by the Nazis from decedent, who resided in Paris in the 1930s.

         Respondents, the Estate of Oscar Stettiner (Estate), Philippe Maestracci, and George W. Gowen, as Limited Ancilliary Administrator of the Estate of Oscar Stettiner, contend that in 1930 decedent Oscar Stettiner purchased a painting, which he subsequently loaned to the 1930 Venice Biennale, a world-famous art exhibition. The painting was listed as number 35 in the exhibition, and, according to respondents, a label on the back of the painting by the Venice Biennale establishes it is the same painting as the one at issue in this case.

         In 1939, before the Nazi invasion, decedent fled Paris to his home in what became the unoccupied zone of France. In 1941, the Nazis appointed a temporary administrator to sell Jewish property and turn the proceeds over to the Third Reich. On July 3, 1944, the subject painting was sold by the temporary administrator to J. Van der Klip.

         In 1946, decedent sought the return of his painting in a French court and received an emergency summons voiding the forced sale and directing Van der Klip to return the painting to him. Van der Klip claimed that he did not know the whereabouts of the painting, having sold it to an unknown American officer in a café. Respondents contend that the painting was secreted by the Van der Klip family for 52 years.

         Decedent died intestate in France on February 25, 1948. Respondent Philippe Maestracci, a French domiciliary, is ...

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