Displaced and nationalized cultural property remains hidden in the vast holdings of museums, libraries, and archives around the world. Some governments holding these “trophies” of war and conquest refuse to return such cultural treasures to their rightful owners even when their provenance has been identified. They assert that the collections were obtained through expropriation and nationalization, and that divestiture of a museum, library, or archive would jeopardize the existence of these institutions and cause societal discord.
This article discusses the struggle of an orthodox Jewish organization to recover from the Russian Federation a collection of sacred, irreplaceable books and manuscripts seized in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and during World War II. The story of Agudas Chasidei Chabad's efforts to recover these core religious texts of its spiritual leaders has involved appeals by U.S. presidents, congress, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission, as well as lawsuits in the Soviet Union/Russia and United States.
After prolonged litigation in the United States, a federal court of appeals in Washington DC ruled in 2008 that American courts have jurisdiction over Chabad's suit against the Russian Federation to recover its religious texts. This ruling may pave the way for the resolution of this dispute and also lead to the filing of other suits in American courts seeking to recover looted cultural property, even if that property is located outside U.S. borders.