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New legislation to allow return of Nazi loot

The British Government is after long deliberations [1] planning on altering existing legislation, to allow the countries national museums & galleries to return artefacts that were looted during the Nazi era [2].

This move to allow further selective deaccessioning (following the decision to allow return of human remains [3]) is an important step. It does however highlight the fragmented nature of legislation on this issue, creating various special case scenarios, rather than defining a policy that applied more comprehensively to all restitution claims based on merit. Whilst few would object to the decision to allow return of Nazi loot from Britain’s institutions, as I have highlighted before [4], there are many other equally worthy cases that fall outside the parameters of the proposed legislation.

Daily Telegraph [5]

National galleries to hand back Nazi art
By Jasper Copping
Last Updated: 11:53PM BST 18 Oct 2008

Artworks looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and now held in Britain’s national museums and galleries are to be handed back to their owners.

The Tate, the British Museum, and the British Library are all known to hold looted items but are currently prevented by law from giving them back to the families that once owned them.

Now the Government has decided to bring in new legislation to allow the artworks to be moved.

Experts have estimated that there could be several hundred artworks or artefacts in British galleries and museums that were plundered from occupied Europe by the Nazis. Many were seized from Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

The move is expected reignite the debate over the Elgin Marbles, with campaigners seeking their return to Greece likely to claim the new legislation will set a precedent for museums to hand back items with disputed ownership.

The proposed legislation follows a campaign by Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon.

“The owner of an artwork identified as stolen by the Nazis ought to have the right to decide whether they wish for the artwork to be returned,” he said.

“Some people may be happy for work to stay in public collections, but they should have the option. At the moment, they are not given that choice.

“No one knows how many artworks this will relate to but we shouldn’t think that just because the war was 60 years ago that this has all finished.”

Under the current legislation, all national museums and galleries are prevented from disposing of any of their works. They can only offer compensation to the owners, although private museums are able to return artworks and artefacts.

But the intention to change the law was announced in response to a parliamentary question from Mr Dismore.

In a statement, the Department for Culture Media and Sport said: “The Government are committed to introducing legislation as soon as possible to allow all national museums, that are currently prevented from doing so by the acts of parliament under which they are founded, to return works of art spoliated during the Nazi era.”

The new legislation is expected to feature in the Heritage Protection Bill, which is due before Parliament later this year.

In 2000, the Government created a committee, the Spoliation Advisory Panel, to settle cases where people claimed items in British museums had been looted.

Since then, it has advised on eight separate cases and is currently considering a ninth claim. A total of six works of art found to have been plundered by the Nazis were held by national museums or galleries, so could not be returned.

The works – which could now be returned under the new legislation – include “View of Hampton Court Palace” by Jan Griffier the Elder, held by the Tate, as well as four “Old Master” drawings held by the British Museum.

These are: “The Holy Family” by Niccolo dell’Abbate; “An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo”, by Nicholas Blakey; “Virgin and Infant Christ, adored by St Elizabeth and the Infant St John”, by Martin Johann Schmidt; and “St Dorothy with the Christ Child” by School of Martin Schongauer, which are all held by the British Museum.

The drawings, worth about £150,000, were stolen from Czech lawyer Arthur Feldmann, who was killed by the Nazis. The British Museum bought the drawings for nine guineas in 1946.

Another case involved “The Beneventan Missal”, held by the British Library. Until the war, the missal was held in the metropolitan chapter of the Cathedral of Benevento, in southern Italy, and is thought to have been looted during German occupation of the region.

It was bought by the Library after the war, when it was auctioned by Captain Douglas Ash, of the Intelligence Corps, who had bought it in Naples in 1944.

The missal itself was written in the early 12th century. As the museum is unable to return the missal, it has offered to loan it back to Italy.

The most recent case involved a porcelain dish held by the British Museum and a “Monteith” (or glass cooler), at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge.

While the item could be returned by the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is not a national museum, the piece held by the British Museum may not be.