November 24, 2009

Changing the law on looted artefacts

Posted at 1:50 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Andrew Dismore’s bill on looted art from the Holocaust now looks increasingly likely to become law – this is very significant for UK museums as like the Human Tissue Act before it, it opens up another hole in the anti-deaccessioning clauses that govern them, making clearer the need for a complete rethink of these issues rather than piecemeal legislation that only gets passed by sidestepping some of the other big issues.

Totally Jewish

Fri, Nov 6, 2009
My Bid to Change the Law on Looted Art in the UK
Andrew Dismore

Once a year, Parliament is like the New Year sales, as we’re forced to queue for the remaining slots for Private Members Bills, after the best slots are taken by those who win the ballot.

So, early one evening a year ago, I unrolled my sleeping bag on the Public Bill Office’s floor to be first in line to table my proposed new laws the following morning. Against the odds, one of my Bills has got all the way through and will come into force in a couple of months time – the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill.

In February 2000, in response to my parliamentary question, the then Arts Minister announced the establishment of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, to consider claims from anyone who lost possession of a cultural object during the Nazi era, now in the possession of a UK national collection.

The Spoliation Panel has dealt with seven cases since then – but the problem was that the law for some collections did not allow restitution as there was no power to “de-acquire”. That led to unjust, unfair and, sometimes, downright ludicrous outcomes. For example, the case of two items of porcelain from the same collection: the piece in the Fitzwilliam was returned to the rightful owners, but the piece in the British Museum could not be.

Almost five years after the issue was first identified in the High Court, my Bill sorts the matter out. It provides a process, with appropriate safeguards, to achieve the correct outcome – that it is for the rightful owners to decide the fate of the object, once ownership has been established to the satisfaction of the Spoliation Advisory Panel.

It’s a simple process. The item claimed is referred to the panel. If the panel finds the object to be spoliated, it makes a recommendation for restitution to the Secretary of State, if it thinks that that is the proper remedy. If the Secretary of State accepts that recommendation, he can trigger the power of de-accession for the museum concerned.

The best estimate is that about 20 looted items are in UK museums, but there could be more. The process of research by families is ongoing and it can take quite a while to locate an item and document a claim, but of course not every rightful owner may want restitution.

Some might, whereas others might settle for an ex gratia compensation payment or even just a public acknowledgement of the rightful ownership by the gallery or museum concerned.

I don’t expect it to be used very often. But I hope the Bill will help close an important chapter on another of the Holocaust’s appalling crimes – the Nazis’ wholesale looting of art and artworks from across Europe.

The is my third Bill of special relevance to Jewish people – the first, the Holocaust Memorial Day Bill, was adopted as government policy, and is now established in the national calendar; the second, the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Bill, became law, and helps resolve the problems of a refused ‘get’. This new Bill is my ‘hat trick’! Any suggestions for number four?

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