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Vineberg v. Bissonnette

United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
548 F.3d 50 (2008)


Facts

Dr. Max Stern inherited an art gallery in Germany in 1934. Because Dr. Stern was of Jewish descent, the Nazi government forced him to surrender the artwork, including a painting (Painting), to the Lempertz Auction House (LAH). The LAH sold the artwork at prices well below market value. Shortly afterward, Dr. Stern fled Germany in fear for his life. The Nazi government prevented Dr. Stern from retrieving the auction proceeds. After World War II ended, Dr. Stern tried to recover his artwork. Dr. Stern placed advertisements, visited Europe to search, and sought judicial recourse in Germany. After his death, Dr. Stern’s estate (Stern Estate) hired the Art Loss Register (Register), an art-recovery company and databank, to help search for the missing artwork. The Stern Estate also listed the Painting on Germany’s Lost Art Internet Database. The Register discovered that the Painting had been purchased from the LAH by Dr. Karl Wilharm and inherited by Wilharm’s stepdaughter, Baroness Maria-Louise Bissonnette (defendant). Wilharm and Bissonnette kept the Painting privately until April 2003, when Bissonnette consigned the Painting to a Rhode Island auction house, Estates Unlimited (EU). EU scheduled an auction of the Painting. Upon notification by the Register of Dr. Stern’s interest in the Painting, EU withdrew the Painting from auction. After failed negotiations with Bissonnette, Robert Vineberg and other trustees of the Dr. and Mrs. Stern Foundation (plaintiffs) brought suit against Bissonnette in federal district court, seeking either replevin or damages. After discovery, the plaintiffs moved for summary judgment. Bissonnette argued a laches defense, claiming that she had been prejudiced by having to defend the litigation, which tarnished her good name, and by losing the opportunity to sell the Painting. The district court rejected Bissonnette’s defense, holding that the plaintiffs had been diligent in pursuing their claim to the Painting, and granted summary judgment. On appeal, Bissonnette again argued laches, but abandoned her previous grounds for prejudice. Instead, Bissonnette argued that she was prejudiced by the delay in filing the lawsuit because potential witnesses and evidence would be unavailable, although she did not specify the witnesses or evidence or how they might help her defense.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Selya, J.)

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