Museums block change in law on looted art

By Patrick Steel, October 10, 2008
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The co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe has condemned a decision by the UK's national museum directors to oppose legislation allowing the return of objects stolen from Jews in the Nazi-era.
Art-restitution expert Anne Webber said: "This represents a complete volte-face by the National Museum Directors Conference (NMDC), whose leading members only a year ago publicly affirmed the need for this legislation. They must not be allowed to prevail."

The government is proposing to change historic legislation that prevents the restitution of items from national museums even in cases where it can be proved that those items have been stolen. A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said any legislation would apply "very specifically" to items looted in the Nazi era.

But the museum directors have urged the DCMS not to go ahead. In a statement praising the work of the Spoliation Advisory Panel which offers independent advice on claims, it said: "Since the panel has proved so effective, and there is no evidence of unsatisfied claims, we feel that the proposed amendment... is unnecessary."

Anne Webber disputed this, saying: "Their statement that ‘there is no evidence of unsatisfied claims' goes against the facts. Only three months ago, the Spoliation Advisory Panel and minister Margaret Hodge expressed their concern at being unable to restore a Nazi-looted item in the British Museum to its rightful owner."

A spokesperson for the British Museum said: "We don't think it is necessary to have additional legislation. After our experience with two cases in the past two years, we feel the current system has been a good way of resolving the cases we have had, and potentially those in the future."

The most recent case involved a porcelain plate that was seized by the Gestapo from a Jewish department store owner in Vienna in 1938.

The heir, who was paid £18,000 in compensation by the DCMS and did not want to be named, said: "The plate is part of a collection that my uncle had. I am trying to reassemble as much of it as possible. Of course, I would love to have it back.

"But my case has been resolved, so I have no idea how that would work if the new law is passed."

    Last updated: 11:05am, October 8 2008