July 25, 2008

British MP campaigns to allow museum deaccessioning

Posted at 12:35 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Andrew Dismore, a British MP is launching a new campaign this week for a change in the law that would allow major museums in the UK (such as the British Museum) to legally deaccession artefacts from their collections if they desired. The current impetus for this stems from the Feldmann case in 2005, although the implications affect many other cases too. Currently, the British Museum claims that even if they wanted to return the Elgin Marbles, the anti-deaccessioning clauses in their charter would prevent them from doing so.

Totally Jewish

‘Change Law So Looted Art Can Be Returned’
by Simon Williams – Thursday 24th July 2008

Launching a new campaign this week, a Labour politician set his sights on changing the law to enable national museums and galleries whose collections include artworks stolen by the Nazis to return them to their rightful owners.

Hendon MP Andrew Dismore, who several years ago was among those who campaigned successfully for the establishment of the spoliation panel to help resolve disputes over stolen artefacts, is hoping that a drive which began recently with a series of parliamentary questions will conclude with new legislation later this year.

“Whilst the panel has been successful in identifying stolen works of art, and there has been some restitution, it has not worked as satisfactorily as it could,” he said.

“National museums and galleries are not permitted by law to “de-access” works of art held in their collections, even in these circumstances. They can only pay compensation. It seems to me that the owner of an art work identified as stolen by the Nazis ought to have the right to decide whether they wish for the art work to be returned, or to have compensation: it should be their choice, not the choice of the museums.”

In 2005, the government said it would begin work on altering the law to allow all nationally-held collections to return pieces later found to have been looted. The pledge came after the High Court ruled that a collection of Old Master drawings plundered from the home of Czechoslovakian doctor Arthur Feldmann in 1939 – and later purchased by the British Museum – could not be returned without changing the 1963 British Museum Act, which prevents the institution from breaking up any part of the collection. The Museum had long accepted that the Feldmann art case represents a “unique moral claim”.

But now, Dismore is hoping that the forthcoming Heritage Protection Bill – that is mainly seeking a revision of legislation that protects historic environments – will provide an opportunity to include amendments to change the law to a situation more akin to Austria where museums are obligated to return looted items.

The MP’s campaign, which follows earlier efforts by Tory MP Edward Vaizey to help resolve the matter, has been welcomed by the Board of Deputies. President Henry Grunwald said: “We hope that it will result in the resolution of this unhappy and complex matter.” Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, added: “We hope his intervention will speed up the legislation process.”

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  1. DR,KWAME OPOKU said,

    07.25.08 at 5:05 pm

    Should this initiative succeed in securing a change in the law with regard to de-accessioning objects that have been proved to have been looted by the Nazis, the honour of Great Britain would have been saved. The present situation where the British Museum and other bodies are considered not to have the power to restitute Nazi looted object is morally objectionable. All those who lost their lives in the fight against Nazism can be considered to have died in vain if illegal acts of those criminals are considered legal by British Law. The wonder is how such an intolerable situation has lasted for so long. The argument that the Greeks or the Nigerians would also demand restitution is not valid. The inhuman nature of the Nazi regime has no equivalent in history and any attempt to compare their acts with those of other groups is wrong. Even if others would derive strength from a change in the law to pursue their claims, that is not a valid reason for persisting ii a policy which all recognize as wrong. Does the British Museum have only stolen goods and objects of doubtful provenance? It is time to give morality a chance.
    Kwame Opoku.

  2. Dr Selby Whittingham said,

    08.01.08 at 9:08 pm

    Works that are given to museums on specified conditions which the museum then ignores should also be returned to the donors or their representatives, as we argue in Donor Watch. The museums have for much too long treated such issues unethically, and partly with parliamentary support.

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