Museums still hold Nazi loot - Museums Association

Museums still hold Nazi loot

Some museums still house works looted by the Nazis. Patrick Steel asks whether the UK is dragging its feet on spoliation research
Patrick Steel
There are still works in UK museums that were looted during the Nazi era, according to the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which has called for a progress report on research into the provenance of works in collections.

The request follows a spate of spoliation cases across Europe in recent months: more than 1,400 works thought to have been looted by the Nazis were found in a flat in Munich; the Netherlands Museums Association launched a website detailing 139 works of dubious provenance in Dutch Museums; and the British Museum paid an undisclosed sum to the heirs of Arthur Feldmann after discovering that a drawing in its collection had been seized by the Gestapo in 1939.

Lagging behind? 

Has the UK fallen behind the rest of Europe on the issue of spoliation research? Anne Webber, co-chair of the commission, does not think so.“The UK has been very much at the forefront of the research and restitution process,” she says.

“Many European countries, despite their endorsement of the 1998 Washington Principles, have not undertaken research into their public collections, have not identified looted artworks or works with gaps in their provenance for the period 1933-45, have published no research, and have not set up a national claims process.

“But the UK has done all these things.”

Maurice Davies, the Museums Association’s head of policy and communications says the UK government responded quickly after 1998, and museums embraced the Washington Principles. He says there has been extensive research done on national and regional museum collections in the past decade.

Proactive stance

However, freelance museum adviser Tristram Besterman believes museums need to remain proactive on this issue, and has criticised the British Museum for failing to establish the provenance of the Feldmann drawing (see page 14), which was discovered after investigations by a family member.

The British Museum responded that its standards of due diligence are extremely high, and pointed to the limited number of spoliation queries relating to its collection.

However, the sector does not have the impetus that it once did. The National Museum Directors’ Council no longer has a working group on spoliation – the last working group meeting on the subject, chaired by Tate director Nicholas Serota, was in 2006.

Arts Council England, which manages the Cultural Property Advice website that allows individual museums to edit information on their provenance research, does not keep a record of amendments and updates.

Moreover, the arts council does not coordinate spoliation research in UK museums.
The problem raised by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe is that no other organisation oversees such research.

Feldmann and the British Museum

Following a payment “in the region of a few thousand pounds” to Feldmann’s family earlier this year, the Pencz drawing, discovered by Uri Peled, a relative of Feldmann’s, will remain in the British Museum.

In a separate case in 2006, the government paid Feldmann’s heirs £175,000 in compensation for four other drawings in the museum’s collection that were found to have been stolen by the Nazis. Peled also donated a drawing to the museum in 2006.

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