07 June 2004

Now, maybe, "she can probably [have] one of those, too." A Klimt, that is. Six of them, that is; although "probably" may be a bit optimistic. The Supreme Court this morning decided that the Republic of Austria cannot rely upon sovereign immunity to avoid defending its possession of six Klimt paintings, two depicting the plaintiff's aunt, that were seized by the Nazis and ended up in the state-controlled Austrian Gallery.

Although the opinion characterizes itself as extremely narrow, it has some interesting implications for authors and artists. Consider, for example, Peter Pan. As I've remarked before, Barrie's work is in perpetual copyright to the Great[er] Ormond Street Children's Hospital by act of Parliament. Might this constitute a seizure of public domain rights under various treaties? If so, might the UK government possibly be hauled into court to answer for it? Of greater interest, what does this decision imply about two other raging controversies in the arts: museum exhibits of materials "stolen" from foreign locations, and "cultural artifact rights" that claim original rights in folklore?

The Court would have been better advised to reject this appeal as premature, on the ground that the asserted immunity is so intimately intertwined with the underlying facts that a trial on the merits is required. As it stands, the opinion leaves far more questions open—even in this particular case—than it answers; that is neither good use of the judicial review power, particularly given the extreme emphasis on "finality" that has come to dominate American jurisprudence in the last thirty years, nor ultimately helpful in resolving the differences of the parties. However, the court chose to accept certain legal fictions in justifying its decision, and its decision to decide. The irony of relying on legal fictions in this context—seizure of works of art—is left to the dubious amusement of the readers.