Heirs plan to return ‘stolen’ art

Families pass a number of items through the generations via estate processes. Common traditional assets passed on to heirs include money, investments, life insurance and real estate. Families might also pass on property such as vehicles or family heirlooms or keepsakes. In some cases, valuables such as jewelry or art are also part of an estate. But what happens if you find out that something you inherited was obtained via illicit means sometime in the past?

One Texas family is dealing with just such a question. The heirs of a World War II tank commander inherited three paintings. The paintings most recently hung in a room in the assisted living facility where the soldier’s widow was living. According to the family, the soldier himself won the paintings in a fair poker game. However, the man’s stepson said that he still considered that the paintings were stolen goods because of how they were originally obtained.

The paintings were part of a German museum collection. During the war, the museum workers hid the paintings in a salt mine. Most of the collection was preserved, but several paintings were looted or found their way home with American soldiers. According to reports, the three paintings inherited by this family, as well as two paintings inherited by others, are being returned to Germany.

While you probably don’t have a looted WWII art piece among items passed down to you through estate processes, it isn’t impossible that estates or inheritances could include stolen or questionable items. In some cases, there are laws governing how these items should be handled. In other cases, it’s a matter of doing what you feel is right. Understanding where those lines are, and managing estate processes from all angles appropriately, can reduce stress and legal issues when such situations arise.

Source: The New York Times, “Returning the Spoils of World War II, Taken by Americans,” May. 05, 2015