May 27, 2005

Verdict reached on the Feldmann case

Posted at 1:42 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The courts have decided that the British Museum Act can not be overruled by any moral obligation on the part of the museum. Therefore the museum can not return the drawings the were looted by the Nazis.
As pointed out in previous articles, this could potentially have had implications for many other restitution cases involving the museum, not least that of the Elgin Marbles, had the courts decided in favour of letting the museum return the drawings.

Bloomberg news

British Museum Can’t Return Works Looted by Nazis, Court Says
May 27 (Bloomberg)

The British Museum, which holds antiquities including the Rosetta Stone and sculptures from Athens’ Parthenon, is barred from returning art looted by the Nazis to the heirs of a Jewish collector, a London court ruled.

The museum can’t override a law blocking it from disposing of pieces in its collection, the U.K. High Court said today. Peter Goldsmith, Britain’s Attorney General, had asked the court to determine whether the institute’s trustees could be permitted to return four drawings it suspects were stolen from Czech doctor Arthur Feldmann in 1939 on the grounds of “moral obligation.”

“No moral obligation can justify a disposition by the Trustees of an object forming part of the collections of the museum,” Justice Andrew Morritt told the court. Feldmann, whose collection was seized from his home when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, later died in a Nazi prison.

Museums worldwide are facing growing pressure to return art works to their homelands. Greece has repeatedly asked to reclaim the Parthenon sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles after the U.K. ambassador who removed them, from the British Museum. In Egypt, authorities have called for Berlin’s Egyptian Museum to return a 3,000-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Lawyers representing Goldsmith earlier this week said allowing the museum, which has more than 5 million visitors annually, to return the four Old Master drawings to Feldmann’s descendants could pave the way for claims on other works.

Old Masters

The drawings, estimated to be worth around 150,000 pounds ($274,000), include “St. Dorothy with the Christ Child” by a follower of Martin Schongauer; “Virgin and infant Christ, 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.

The British Museum bought the drawings in good faith in the late 1940s, without knowing their origin, according to the judgment.

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said the institution will have a comment on the case later today.

The case is HC04CO3885 Her Majesty’s Attorney General v The Trustees of the British Museum.

Last Updated: May 27, 2005 08:13 EDT

The Scotsman

Law Prevents Museum Handing over Nazi Loot
12:56pm (UK)
By Stephen Howard, PA

The British Museum is barred by law from handing back four Old Master drawings even though it has agreed they were looted by the Nazis.

Vice Chancellor Sir Andrew Morritt ruled today in the High Court that the British Museum Act – which protects the collections for posterity – cannot be overridden by a “moral obligation” to return works known to have been plundered.

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had asked for clarification after warning that if there was a moral obligation to restore such objects, it could give Greece a route whereby it could reclaim the Elgin Marbles.

The Vice Chancellor was asked to decide whether the “moral obligation” of the British Museum to the true owners of looted works of art overrides laws forbidding the break-up of its collections.

The four drawings were stolen from the home of Dr Arthur Feldmann by the Gestapo in 1939 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

Both Dr Feldmann and his wife died at the hands of the Nazis.

All the drawings were acquired by the British Museum shortly after Second World War.

A spokesperson for the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which is representing Dr Feldmann’s heirs, said after the ruling: “The ruling is significant for all claimants of looted art from the Nazi era, setting aside any possibility of restitution being achieved in this way, and showing that the Government ought now to legislate in order to achieve clarity for all claimants.

“The commission very much regrets that this avenue to achieve the return of the drawings is not now open to the museum.”

The spokesperson said it was now three years since the museum agreed the Feldmann family’s claim.

She said the family remained confident that a way will be found for them to reclaim the drawings “in accordance with the British Museum’s long-standing commitment so to do”.

The commission said the claim had been put before the Government-appointed Spoliation Advisory Panel which had been awaiting the outcome of this case before proceeding.

Sir Andrew said in his judgment that neither the Crown nor the Attorney General has any power to dispense with “due observance” of Acts of Parliament.

He said no moral obligation can justify the museum trustees departing from the law protecting objects forming part of the collections.

“In my judgment only legislation or a bona fide compromise of a claim of the heirs of Dr Feldmann to be entitled to the four drawings could entitle the trustees to transfer any of them to those heirs.”

The drawings, for which the museum paid a total of nine guineas in 1946, are now estimated to be worth £150,000.

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