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British MP campaigns to allow museum deaccessioning

Andrew Dismore [1], 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 [2] 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 [3] in their charter would prevent them from doing so.

Totally Jewish [4]

‘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.”