May 24, 2005

More on the Feldmann case

Posted at 10:20 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

Three more sources are covering the story now – interesting if for no other reason than having that number of papers documenting a relatively obscure legal judgement.

The Times

May 25, 2005
Elgin Marbles cast dark shadow over looted art
By Sean O’Neill
MINISTERS could stop the British Museum returning artworks looted by the Nazis to a Jewish family because of fears that they might pave the way for Greece to make a legally binding claim on the Elgin Marbles.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, asked the High Court to clarify whether the museum could exercise a “moral obligation” to return improperly obtained property.

The specific case at issue is a claim by the heirs of Dr Arthur Feldmann for the return of four Old Master drawings taken from the Czech lawyer’s home in Brno by the Gestapo in 1939.

Dr Feldmann was tortured and murdered by the Nazis and his wife, Gisela, died at Auschwitz. The British Museum, which obtained the drawings at auction after the war, wants to return them but cannot do so because of legislation that expressly forbids it to dispose of items from its collections.

Its trustees asked the Attorney-General if they had permission to return the artworks under the terms of the Snowden principle — a legal test that permits charities to give back items that it would be wrong for them to keep.

Lawyers for the museum argue that the case of art looted by the Nazis is highly exceptional and would not create a precedent. But Lord Goldsmith asked the court to rule and expressed concern that returning the Feldmann drawings could lead to claims against the British Museum and other national collections. In papers submitted to Sir Andrew Morritt, the Vice-Chancellor, who is hearing the case, lawyers for the Attorney-General said: “There are other objects to which a moral claim might be made, of which the Elgin Marbles may be the prime example.”

Will Henderson, counsel for the Attorney-General, told the court that the circumstances of art looted by the Gestapo appeared unique but were not. He added: “Once the principle is established, then it could apply to any objects whatever their provenance. Whether they were looted during the course of the Holocaust or whether they were acquired in unseemly circumstances at any other time. What if the moral claim were very different — if it were a cultural claim rather than a proprietary claim? . . . The door would be open.”

Mr Henderson was referring to the sculptures removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century, which are the subject of a lengthy dispute between Athens and London.

The Government’s concerns will disappoint the Feldmann family, which has been negotiating with the British Museum for the return of its artworks since 2002.

The drawings are St Dorothy with the Christ Child, 1508, by a follower of Martin Schongauer, a German engraver; Virgin and Child Adored by St Elizabeth and the Infant St John by Martin Johann Schmidt, from the 18th century; An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo by the 18th-century English artist Nicholas Blakey, and The Holy Family by Niccolo dell’Abbate, the 16th-century Bolognese artist.


The British Museum has a number of objects which may be subject to ownership claims including:

  • Benin bronzes: in 2002, Nigerian parliament declared bronzes were plundered during the colonial era
  • Ethiopian tabots: after long campaign, museum agreed to transfer them on long loan to the Ethiopian Church in London when building is available
  • Lewis Chessmen: In 1995, islanders refused to hand back 12th century Celtic pieces after they were loaned to Lewis, where they were initially found in 1830s
  • Aboriginal artefacts: early bark etchings are subject of a claim by Australian Aborigines
  • Rosetta Stone: Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities pursuing a three-month loan for when museum in Gizeh is completed

The Guardian

Attorney asks for ruling in Nazi art case
Sandra Laville
Wednesday May 25, 2005
The Guardian

The fate of four Old Master drawings in the British Museum which were stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish collector 66 years ago could provide a route for the Greeks finally to reclaim the Parthenon marbles, a court heard yesterday.

In a complex legal case, a high court judge is considering whether the museum should return the works to the descendants of Arthur Feldmann, a Jew who was jailed and tortured by the Nazis when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

The museum feels it has a moral duty to hand back the drawings, worth several hundred thousand pounds, to the heirs of Dr Feldmann, who died in a concentration camp with his wife.

But under the 1963 Museums Act it is barred from doing anyhting that could break up collections without the attorney general’s permission.

Lord Goldsmith yesterday asked a high court judge to rule whether he should grant permission, knowing it could set a precedent and prompt a flood of applications for the return of other works.

If the court decides the art works should be returned, it could open the way for Athens to make another case for the return of the marbles.

Will Henderson, counsel for the attorney, said: “There are plainly other objects to which a moral claim might be made, of which the Elgin marbles may be the prime example.”

He told the judge, Vice-Chancellor Sir Andrew Morritt, that the decision could affect other works, whether they were looted during the Holocaust or whether they were acquired in “unseemly circumstances at any other time”.

“What if the moral claim were very different. If it was a cultural claim, rather than a proprietorial claim … the door would be open,” he said.

Dr Feldmann’s collection of 750 drawings was seized from his home in Brno by the gestapo on March 15 1939 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia. The four Old Master drawings at the British Museum were bought in good faith in the late 1940s.

They are: St Dorothy with the Christ Child (1508), by a follower of Martin Schongauer; Virgin and Child Adored by St Elizabeth and the Infant St John, by Martin Johann Schmidt; An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo by the 18th-century English artist Nicholas Blakey; and The Holy Family by the 16th-century Bolognese artist Niccolo dell’Abbate.

Three of the drawings were bought at Sotheby’s in 1946. The fourth was bequeathed to the museum three years later.

Documents located by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe revealed conclusive evidence that the drawings, worth some £150,000, were stolen.

Dr Feldmann’s descendants, including his grandson, Uri Peled, worked with the commission to compile documents that proved the art was looted. Their claim is the first against a British collection to demand the return of art works.

The British Museum has previously stated that the descendants of Dr Feldmann had a “thoroughly compelling case” for reclaiming the art. Judgment has been reserved.

Financial Times

High Court hears Nazi art loot case
By Nikki Tait
Published: May 25 2005 03:00 | Last updated: May 25 2005 03:00

Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general, is seeking a judge’s advice on whether the normal bar on disposals from a national art collection can be overridden and Old Master drawings could possibly be returned to the family of a man who died in a Nazi prison.

The outcome of the case, which was heard in the High Court yesterday, could have implications for other “looted art” claims.

It involves four Old Master drawings – said to be worth about £150,000 – which were acquired in good faith by the British Museum after the second world war. Three years ago, the museum acknowledged that there was a “compelling” claim that they had been looted by the Nazis from a private collection belonging to Dr Arthur Feldmann.

But, by law, the British Museum cannot normally make disposals from its collections. Nikki Tait

BBC News

Case could force Marbles’ return
A court case over the return of art looted by the Nazis may set a legal precedent which sees Britain compelled to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

The British Museum is seeking to return four Old Master drawings stolen from a Jewish collector in the 1930s.

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has asked the High Court to clarify whether the museum has a moral duty to return property obtained improperly.

The Elgin Marbles are the subject of an ongoing row between Britain and Greece.

The marbles, a series of statues and fragments, were removed from Athens’ Parthenon in 1811 by Lord Elgin, and later sold to the British Museum.

Greece has consistently demanded them back, most recently for last Summer’s Olympic Games.

British law prevents the British Museum from disposing of anything in its vast collection.

However, the museum is seeking permission to return the drawings to the heirs of Czech lawyer Dr Arthur Feldmann, under the terms of the Snowden principle.

The principle permits charities to give back items it would be wrong for them to keep.

If the court rules that Lord Goldsmith can give his permission for the works to be returned, it could pave the way for other claims like the Elgin Marbles.

“It would allow them to return any items in their collection if they thought there was a moral obligation to do so,” said a spokesman for the Attorney General’s office.

Nonetheless, the final decision over works leaving the country lies with Lord Goldsmith.

So far, he has reserved judgment on whether he will allow the Old Masters to be returned once the High Court has made its ruling.

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