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De Weerth v. Baldinger - 836 F.2d 103 (2d Cir. 1987)


Under New York law, even though the three-year limitations period begins to run only once a demand for return of the property is refused, a plaintiff may not delay the action simply by postponing his demand. Where demand and refusal are necessary to start a limitations period, the demand may not be unreasonably delayed. While this proscription against unreasonable delay has been referred to as "laches," the New York courts have explained that the doctrine refers solely to an unexcused lapse of time and not to the equitable principle of laches, which requires prejudice to the defendant as well as delay.


This appeal concerns a dispute over ownership of a painting by Claude Monet that disappeared from Germany at the end of World War II and has been in the possession of a good-faith purchaser for the last 30 years.  Plaintiff Gerda Dorothea DeWeerth, a citizen of West Germany, owned the Monet from 1922 until 1943. She brought an action to recover the Monet in the District Court for the Southern District of New York from from defendant Edith Marks Baldinger, an American citizen who purchased the painting in New York in 1957 and who has possessed it for 30 years. The district court allowed DeWeerth to recover the paint, and Baldinger, the good-faith  purchaser, challenged the judgment.


Does the delayed demand to return the alleged stolen property preclude its recovery from a good faith purchaser?




The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that N.Y.C.P.L.R. 214(3), which governed actions for recovery of stolen property, required that an action be brought within three years of the time the action accrued. The court ruled that although plaintiff DeWeerth initiated her suit within three years of the date that her demand for return of the painting was refused, the court held that the demand for return of the property could not be unreasonably delayed and the court found the delay unreasonable. The court further noted that the owner had a duty to use reasonable diligence in attempting to locate her stolen painting and to make a demand for its return within a reasonable time and that she failed to take steps to satisfy that duty.

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