Art Law: A Closer Look at the Proposed Art Restitution Act

The Bavarian State Government ealier this month presented the proposed Art Restitution Act (Kulturgut-Rückgewähr-Gesetz, KRG). Here is a closer look at how it is supposed to work, and what it is likely to achieve.

Technically, the proposed legislation is quite elegant: All it does is to insert a new paragraph into Sec. 214 German Civil Code (BGB), shown in italics in the bi-lingual version:

Section 214 Effect of Limitation*

§ 214 Wirkung der Verjährung


(1) After limitation occurs, the obligor is entitled to refuse   performance.

(1) Nach Eintritt der Verjährung ist der   Schuldner berechtigt, die Leistung zu verweigern.

(2) In case of a claim for   restitution pursuant to Sec. 985 or claims in support of a claim for restitution   pursuant to Sec. 985, the limitation defence shall be excluded, if the owner,   or his predecessor in title, or, in the case of indirect possession, the   immediate possessor had lost the property and the possessor, in the event of   indirect possession the beneficial possessor, did not act in good faith when   he obtained possession.

(2) Gegenüber einem Herausgabeanspruch aus § 985 sowie Ansprüchen, die der Geltendmachung eines Herausgabeanspruchs aus § 985 dienen, ist die Berufung auf die Verjährung ausgeschlossen, wenn die Sache dem Eigentümer, dessen Rechtsvorgänger oder bei mittelbarem Besitz dem unmittelbaren Besitzer abhandengekommen war und der Besitzer, bei mittelbarem Besitz der mittelbare Eigenbesitzer bei Erwerb des Besitzes nicht in gutem Glauben war.

(3) Performance rendered in satisfaction of a claim that is now   statute-barred may not be claimed back even if performance was rendered   without knowledge of the limitation. The same applies to an acknowledgement   made in accordance with a contract and to a security provided by the obligor.

(3) Das zur Befriedigung eines verjährten   Anspruchs Geleistete kann nicht zurückgefordert werden, auch wenn in   Unkenntnis der Verjährung geleistet worden ist. Das Gleiche gilt von einem   vertragsmäßigen Anerkenntnis sowie einer Sicherheitsleistung des Schuldners.

So what is this proposal? First, it is a misnomer. It does apply to restitution claims for movables of any type, not only to art. Secondly, it is not a Lex Gurlitt – it follows in the footsteps of proposals made more than 10 years ago.  Thirdly, is is not a full-blown restitution act like Austria enacted.

Will it help heirs who claim restitution of art found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment, or those who bring other restitution claims for looted art? Very difficult to say in general, because much will depend on the facts of each individual case. The burden of proof will remain on the claimant both that title was not lost in any intervening transaction, and that the possessor acted in bad faith at the time of obtaining possession. These remain substantial hurdles. So in my view, it is a step into the right direction, but we are not quite there yet.

The reactions in the press so far have been ranging from lukewarm to hostile. But to be fair to the Bavarians, they face an up-hill battle: After almost 70 years of legislative inertia on a federal level, they did at least try to tackle a hideously difficult problem: Doing justice, under the rule of law, to injustice inflicted upon the victims of the Nazi regime. And so far, none of the critics has come up with a better alternative. Tomorrow, we will have a guest post by Lorenz Kähler who explores the issues in much more detail and offers both a critical perspective and some alternatives – so watch this space.

* The translation of Sec. 214 German Civil Code in its current form has been taken from The proposed amendment has been translated by me.



  1. Hello Mr Bert,
    I am writing a (scholarly) article for Art Antiquity and Law, to be published next month on the Gurlitt affair and the legislative response. Would I be able to use your English translation of the proposed s. 214 amendment in the article? I will give you full acknowledgment for the translation of course. Thanks.

    • Peter Bert

      Dear Alex, sure, feel free to Quote. Will you send me a copy of the article? Kind regards, Peter

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