May 24, 2005

Moral obligations of British Museum could overrule the British Museum Act

Posted at 8:00 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

One of the arguments used by the British Museum for why they can’t return the Elgin Marbles to Greece is the British Museum Act 1963. This is the act of parliament that defines many aspects of the way the British Museum operates. It defines things such as how the Museum’s trustees are appointed. It also sets out the rules on how the Museum can remove objects from its collection (or in most cases, how it can not). The act states that the only way that items can be removed from the British Museum’s collection is if they are either duplicates of other items in the collection, or are deemed worthless as a result of damage or similar. Originally this served the purpose of safeguarding the collections within the museum & stopping them from getting broken up. These safeguards are not unique to the British Museum, but are a relatively common feature in the charter of museums to prevent deaccessioning (the term used to describe the removal of items from a museum or libraries collection).
The British Museum regularly uses this Act as part of their reasoning that they can not return the Parthenon Marbles, suggesting that the act means that they can not be removed from the collection without a change of the act, & that a change of the act would be a decision made by the government. This conveniently means that they can divert questions about the return of the marbles to being the responsibility of the government. (lets not forget though then when it suits them it is possible to bend / ignore the British Museum Act – the deaccessioning of some of the Benin Bronzes, as exposed by the Art Newspaper, was either a strange interpretation of the act, or a case of total incompetence by the museum in understanding the contents of its own collections). The reality is that any decision would probably have to be agreed by both the Museum & The Government).
All this could change however, as a court case underway at the moment could rule that the moral obligations of the museum in cases of restitution can over rule the anti-deaccessioning provisions of the British Museum Act. The Attorney General has acknowledged that the outcome of this case could have implication for other cultural property cases, specifically mentioning the Elgin Marbles as an example. It will be very interesting to see the conclusions of this case.

The Scotsman

Tue 24 May 2005 4:23pm (UK)
Court Battle Could Decide Fate of Elgin Marbles
By Stephen Howard, PA

A court battle over Old Masters drawings looted by the Nazis could decide the fate of the Elgin Marbles.

Senior High Court judge Sir Andrew Morritt was today asked to rule 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 Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has asked the court for clarification of the law because he says there are “strong arguments” that the moral merit of a claim cannot override an Act of Parliament which bars the museum from disposing of its collections.

If the Act can be overridden, the Vice Chancellor of the Chancery Division was told “the door would be open” to claims against any museum.

“There are plainly other objects to which moral claim might be made. The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon may be the prime example,” said William Henderson, representing Lord Goldsmith.

Mr Henderson said: “Once the principle is established then it could apply to any object whatever the problems, whether looted in the course of the holocaust or acquired in unseemly circumstances.”

The application to the High Court arises out of a claim for the restitution of four drawings looted from Arthur Feldmann by the Gestapo in 1939 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.

They were acquired by the British Museum in the late 1940s and are now believed to be worth around £150,000 in total.

The Czech lawyer was sentenced to death but died of injuries sustained in prison. His wife, Gisela, was murdered at Auschwitz.

Dr Feldmann’s heirs have enlisted the aid of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe which is represented at today’s hearing.

The CLAE is representing the Feldmann family in dealings with both the British Museum and the Spoliation Advisory Panel – set up by the Government in 2000 to consider claims involving cultural objects looted by the Nazis – to which the claim has been referred.

Mr Henderson said the collections of the British Museum were protected by the 1963 British Museum Act which states that the objects should be preserved for the public “for all posterity”.

The drawings involved in the case 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, from the 18th century; An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo by the English artist Nicholas Blakey, also from the 18th century; and the Holy Family by Niccolo dell’Abbate, the 16th century Bolognese artist.

Judgment was reserved.

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