Emily A. Graefe

Document Type



During the Nazi regime, much of Europe’s art was pillaged. This Note addresses the conflicts faced by museums when an original owner or heir of artwork brings an ownership claim against a piece in the museum’s collection. Because of their fiduciary duties, museums are encouraged to protect trust assets. Museums can protect their assets from ownership claims with statutes of limitations and laches defenses, which grow stronger with the passage of time. On the other hand, professional codes of conduct encourage museums to work with heirs when there is a claim of ownership to find a mutually agreeable solution. This Note argues that because museum trustees are given discretion, it is reasonable to follow professional ethical guidelines and thus fulfill their duty of care. When the ownership claim is valid, museums should follow the ethical guidelines and work with the heirs to find an amenable solution. When the ownership claim is invalid, however, museums are under no ethical obligation to forego litigation and work with the heirs. If museums decide to pursue litigation when the claim is valid, though, then that behavior is unethical.