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Labeling Looted Art: New York’s Legislative Step Towards Ethical Curation

Posted by on Tuesday, November 8, 2022 in Blog Posts.

By Charlotte Yates

A recent New York state law requires museums to clearly label art that was looted by Nazis in 1933-1945.[1] The law takes effect during a time of increased public scrutiny towards museum art acquisition and the equities implicated by museums’ curation practices.[2] “Provenance,” or “the ownership history of an artwork, from when it was first created to its arrival at the museum” is a large part of curators’ efforts to ensure the authenticity of their pieces.[3] However, a piece’s provenance can also reveal the unethical—sometimes criminal—appropriation of art from its true owner. Beyond ensuring authenticity, a work’s provenance also implicates the important question: who is the piece’s rightful owner today? Museums have traditionally avoided this second question, the answer to which could seriously threaten their catalogs and their wallets.

The New York law calls museums to publicly reckon with this troubling second question. In addition to requiring New York museums to prominently label art “which changed hands due to theft, seizure, confiscation, forced sale or other involuntary means in Europe during the Nazi era,” it will also require those works be listed with the Art Loss Register, a database of “lost, stolen and looted art.”[4] One of the law’s sponsors, State Senator Anna M. Kaplan, notes, “[w]ith the history of the Holocaust being so important to pass on to the next generation, it’s vital that we be transparent and ensure that anyone viewing artwork stolen by the Nazis understand where it came from and its role in history.”[5] While the New York law is one step in the direction of ethical curation, some feel it falls short. John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Erin Thompson, for one, calls the law a measure directed at an already “well scrutinized area” and directs attention to the under-scrutinized area of “antiquities or stolen sacred artworks or objects taken from colonized countries.”[6] As public demand for ethical curation increases, more state and federal legislation may well follow.

Charlotte Yates is a J.D. Candidate in Vanderbilt Law School’s Class of 2024.

You can download a copy of Charlotte’s post here.

[1] S. 117A, 2022 Leg. Sess. (NY 2022),,the%20Nazi%20era%20in%20Europe.

[2] Last Week Tonight, Museums: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), YouTube (Oct. 3, 2022), (The popular HBO show’s coverage of unethical museum curation has 5.5 million views on YouTube as of Nov. 7, 2022).

[3] Amanda Berman, Nazi Looters, Royal Personalities, and Provenance, Getty (Apr. 8, 2022),

[4] Joel Mathis, New York’s new Nazi stolen art law, explained, New York State Senate Newsroom (Aug. 23, 2022),

[5] Governor Hochul Signs Legislation to Honor and Support Holocaust Survivors in Educational, Cultural, and Financial Institutions, New York State Governor (Aug. 10, 2022),

[6] Caroline Spivack, New York museums must label Nazi-looted art, Crain’s New York Business (Oct. 20, 2022),