Spoliation: Nazi loot in museums

Between 1933 and 1945 the Nazi regime seized many works of art and cultural property in Europe. These works of art were later sold and resold, some finding their way to museums. Despite efforts following World War II to return looted and stolen property, many works of art still require restitution.

Public awareness of the extent and significance of Nazi looting (or spoliation) has grown significantly over recent years. Across the world, Holocaust survivors and the descendants of victims are now attempting to trace and recover works of art that were lost during the Nazi era.

The Declaration of Principles, agreed at the Washington Conference on Holocaust-era Assets in 1998, included the encouragement of heirs to come forward and the need to make information accessible:

· Every effort should be made to publicise art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted in order to locate its pre-war owners or their heirs.

· Pre-war owners and their heirs should be encouraged to come forward and make known their claims to art confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted.

· If the pre-war owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution, recognising this may vary according to the facts and circumstances surrounding a specific case.

In the UK, The National Museum Directors' Conference (NMDC) has developed an area of its website dedicated to assisting with the search for works of art wrongly taken during the Holocaust and World War II.

It includes a searchable database of works of art with uncertain provenance from over 30 museums and galleries in the UK, and specific reports on the relevance of collections from many more museums (nationalmuseums.org.uk/spoliation.html).

Inclusion on the database does not necessarily mean that the work of art has been looted but that it has uncertain provenance for the period 1933-1945.

A search tool for relevant objects in US museum collections is also available. It is known as the Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (www.nepip.org) and is administered by the American Association of Museums (AAM). There are around 127 participating museums listed in the portal. AAM have produced guidelines and procedures for providing information and appropriate action
(www.aam-us.org/museumresources/prov/index.cfm).

To help resolve claims of lost cultural property now held in UK national collections the Spoliation Advisory Panel was set up by the Department of Culture Media and Sport in April 2000. The panel is chaired by the Rt Hon Sir David Hirst retired Lord Justice of Appeal, and considers claims for the return of objects.

It advises claimants, the organisation in possession of the objects, and the Government on a suitable course of action. Each claim is treated on a case-by-case basis.

The first claim to be considered was the painting, A View of Hampton Court Palace, c1710, by Jan Griffier the Elder at the Tate Gallery. In 2001 the Government paid compensation to the family who were forced to sell the painting when they fled Belgium. The painting remains in the Tate collections.

The most recent case is a 12th century manuscript in the possession of the British Library. The Beneventan Missal was looted from the Metropolitan Chapter of Benevento, Italy, between 1943 and 1944. The manuscript was acquired by the British Museum in 1947 and later transferred to the British Library.

In March 2005, the panel recommended that legislation should be introduced to permit restitution of objects spoliated in this way, and in the meantime the manuscript should be returned on loan to Italy. The panel's rulings have been accepted by the British Library and backed by the Government.

A full report is published on each claim assessed by the Spoliation Advisory Panel, these can be found on the DCMS website. Further information on the Spoliation Advisory Panel and its reports can be found at:
http://www.culture.gov.uk/what_we_do/cultural_property/3296.aspx
Useful web sources:

www.aam-us.org/museumresources/prov/index.cfm

www.nepip.org

nationalmuseums.org.uk/spoliation.html

www.lootedart.com

www.lootedartcommission.com

www.culturalpropertyadvice.gov.uk/