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Owen Pell makes no apologies for the years he has spent defending clients such as the government of Poland and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. against claims brought by Holocaust victims. But that doesn’t mean that the 43-year-old litigation partner at New York’s White & Case looks back on his work with complete satisfaction. “It struck me,” Pell says, “that this is an area of grave inefficiency.” A labyrinth of local and national jurisdictions thoroughly confuse people about where they should pursue claims of damages or seek lost property. And owners of art face their own uncertainties, with any work of art from Europe being at least theoretically vulnerable forever to claims that it was looted from Holocaust victims’ collections. Says Pell: “As a lawyer, I thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’” He thinks he has found that way, after spending six months on unpaid sabbatical to devise and shop around his proposal. Pell’s innovation, known as a title clearing agency, would provide a place for art owners to register works of art, particularly if they are of questionable provenance. Then a title registration bureau would publicize the property’s registration. If no one stakes a claim after a certain time, the title clearing agency would have the authority to declare the current owner the rightful owner. The plan, still at an early stage, requires approval by the European Commission after hearings this summer. But it already is endorsed by Ronald Lauder’s Commission for Art Recovery, one of the leading advocacy groups for claimants of missing art. “This is the first concrete proposal that looks workable,” says Charles Goldstein, an attorney with the commission. “It’s rather ingenious.” A major advantage of Pell’s proposal, according to Goldstein, is that it would be international in scope but structured in such a way that it would be enforceable by current treaties. A proposal requiring a new treaty, Goldstein says, would take years to be approved. Pell, who calls art recovery “sort of a hobby,” brings a unique expertise, says Goldstein: “[Pell's] familiar with international relations, he knows the art, and he’s worked in this field for years.” Some of that work, of course, took advantage of the same systemic weaknesses that Pell’s proposal now attacks. When defending the government of Poland, for example, he claimed that the U.S. District Court had no jurisdiction over an internal matter in Poland. He was, of course, doing his job. But no one ever said an advocate couldn’t dream of a system that is fairer to both sides.

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