MP seeks change in the law to boost restitution of looted art

A fresh move has been made to change the law so that art looted by the Nazis which has been found in British museums can be returned to the heirs of the original owners.

There had been hopes that legislation long promised by the government would be included in a heritage protection bill, but the bill was omitted from the Queen’s Speech last December.

Now Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon, is moving a private member’s bill, which will have its second reading this month.

“It’s unfinished business for me,” Mr Dismore said. “It should be for the rightful owners to decide what the remedy should be. They may be happy to leave it where it is but with appropriate compensation arrangements in place.”

He said that he had received “ very positive messages” from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. “I’ve spoken to ministers and they are broadly supportive of what we are trying to do.”

The anomalies in the law were illustrated last summer in a decision of the Spoliation Advisory Panel which adjudicates on claims of looted art in British institutions.

Bertha Gutmann of New Jersey, USA, had claimed two pieces of porcelain which had been seized by the Gestapo from her uncle, Heinrich Rothberger, in Vienna in 1938.

One had since come to the British Museum, the other to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Both objects had been looted, the panel ruled. But whereas the Fitzwilliam piece, an 18th-century monteith or water-cooler, should go back to Mrs Gutmann, it said that it had no power to order similar action from the British Museum because of laws preventing the “de-accessioning” of objects in a national museum.

But it said the museum should make an ex-gratia payment of £18,000 for the piece — an “exceptional and attractive” 18th century dish which it had acquired “in good faith” in 1939.

The panel noted that it had recommended altering the law “so as to permit restitution in cases where the panel has upheld a claim in respect of an object wrongfully taken during the period 1933-1945”.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said: “Andrew Dismore has picked up the baton. We value his efforts and his commitment.”

    Last updated: 10:03am, April 2 2009