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The UK is not going to become a haven for looted art?

A response from Lord Howarth of Newport to the previous letter in The Times [1] about the implications of the new Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill. It is worth bearing in mind that this is the same Alan Howarth who as an MP frequently spoke out that the Elgin Marbles should remain in Britain, claiming that to return them to Greece would impoverish the world.

The Times [2]

Letters to the Editor
The Times
November 29, 2006
Law on displays of looted art

Sir, The Government’s proposals would not promote an “international free-for-all” or give “complete immunity” to those who wish to display what may be stolen and looted art in public exhibitions (letter, Nov 28). Immunity from seizure will not mean immunity from suit.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport guidance on due diligence, together with the code of practice of the Museums Association and the principles promulgated by the National Museum Directors Conference, makes it clear that museums and galleries should borrow items only if they are “legally and ethically sound”. The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill allows the Secretary of State to withdraw approval, and therefore immunity from seizure, from an institution that she considers not to be performing due diligence adequately.

The Government has also made it clear that the immunity will not apply where a UK court is required to make an order for the seizure or confiscation of property under European or international law. The Return of Cultural Objects Regulations 1994 provide for a procedure whereby an object that was removed unlawfully from a member state and is found in the territory of another member state can be returned to the state from which it was removed. The Unesco convention, to which the Government subscribed recently, provides for the recovery and return of stolen cultural property.

The Government issued a consultation paper containing a full discussion of the issues and the approach it was minded to take. The measure is plain to see, forming a discrete part of a main government Bill.

Happily, all your correspondents are legislators, privileged to take part in the debates on the Bill in Parliament. Beyond condemning the policy in a letter, they may care to participate in the second reading debate today and thereafter in the painstaking scrutiny and amendment in committee, at report stage and at third reading which is key to the reputation of the Second Chamber.

The issue to examine is whether the Government has or has not succeeded in its declared aim of striking “a fair balance” between the rights of the claimant and the public interest. The Government has sought strenuously to resolve the tension between two public goods: the continuation of great art exhibitions (such as those currently in London of Holbein, Velásquez, Elsheimer and Hockney) and access to legal remedy in our jurisdiction for aggrieved claimants of works of art.

House of Lords