James Ratcliffe


Issue 117/10, p15, 02.10.2017
How can museums better support the return of Nazi-looted art?
James Ratcliffe, director of recoveries and general counsel, Art Loss Register

“Public collections have no excuse for a lack of transparency. In publishing collections online, some museums have set a fantastic example. But more could be done, especially in publishing the provenance of items now, rather than awaiting the completion of internal research programmes. Publication online allows others to research items when they want rather than follow a museum’s timetable. There is acost to publication, but it is lower than that of provenance research. This approach would also benefit those researching looted antiquities.

Janet Ulph, professor of law, University of Leicester

“The fact that Nazi agents stole paintings by great artists from Holocaust victims is well known. But they also seized items of lesser value, such as ornaments, jewellery and furniture. Museums could train staff to be more aware that these types of items could have been looted, when checking, digitising and rationalising collections. This is a monumental challenge. These objects may have been altered, making them difficult to identify, and acquisition records may be poor. Detailed images online, with descriptions of what is known about them, are the best first step.”

Ray Barnett, head of collections and archives, 
Bristol Culture

“With major museums having listed their works of art with unknown provenance for 1933-45 on the Collections Trust website, the call to do more revolves around researching that unknown provenance. But prioritising such work, even if you have the staff with the requisite skills and knowledge is problematic. Museums need new incentives – rather than just the moral imperative – to carry out such work and to be trained in how to do it. A small sum of cash to set up the means to supply advice, support and training to the museum community nationwide would go a long way.”

Alistair Brown, policy officer, Museums Association

“At the moment, claimants need to be art detectives, searching through collections records to trace works that rightfully belong to them. They are putting museums under pressure to be more transparent about their collections – and rightly so. But the question lurking in the background is how to resource this important work. When even national museums struggle, it’s hardly surprising that others have had to cut back on the expensive collections work that underpins the whole process of returning Nazi-looted art.”