United Kingdom

Unique Circumstances And Special Sensibilities

The environment for restitution claims to Nazi-looted art discovered in museums in the United Kingdom has evolved since the mid-1990s, especially in the last ten years.

Public opinion in Britain about Nazi-looted art has been shaped in part by history. First, Britain was an allied power, and while viciously attacked from the air, it was never occupied —and Britons were never persecuted at home. There was a level of comfort knowing the looting did not happen in the UK. Some people realized, however, that the art market in London (in the 1930s and after the war) was preeminent when markets on the continent were greatly diminished. Looted art could have made its way to the UK. Second, the discussion of claims and rightful ownership in the art community (museum personnel, lawyers, government officials, and academics) was centered for years on questions of antiquities. Discussions about ownership and morality focused on the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, acquired for the nation in the early nineteenth century by an Act of Parliament and for almost 200 years in the British Museum. The antiquities debate was further heightened by exposés of the contemporary art market and its exposure (complicit and otherwise) to recently looted antiquities. Clear lines of advocacy on each side had been articulated and passionately argued for years before the questions about Nazi-looted art arose in the late 1990s.

The distinctions—legal, ethical, and historical? between the problem of Nazi-looted art and the market in looted antiquities were blurred by pre-existing views on dealing in antiquities that were clandestinely dug up and smuggled from countries that forbid their export. The U.K. also has a law prohibiting its national museums from de-accessioning items in their collections, which was relied on to defend the retention of works of art to which the museums in any case might never have gained good title under common law. A bill was introduced to remove this obstacle so that British national museums could legally restitute if the Spoliation Advisory Panel so recommends. The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 became law on November 13, 2009 and remains in effect for a period of ten years only.

In the United Kingdom in the last ten years, several Jewish organizations and advocacy groups for Nazi persecutees set about the task of changing public opinion and working to restore looted art to claimant families. Among these was the not-for-profit Commission for Looted Art in Europe founded in 1999. In addition, the Art Loss Register, a business, decided to offer its listing service free of charge to claimants of Holocaust-looted art. After the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets (1998), the U.K. government set up the Spoliation Advisory Panel to mediate disputes between current possessors and claimants of Nazi-looted works of art. Its first recommendations came in 2001. The Spoliation Panel's website explains its formation, powers, and membership. It also provides texts explaining all the cases on which it has issued recommendations.

In 2009, the panel recommended against the return of some old master drawings in the Courtauld Gallery claimed by heirs of Curt Glaser. Here, with links on the left of this page, we supplement the documents posted on the Panel's website with relevant recent correspondence. In the opinion of CAR, the decision of the Spoliation Panel against the claimant was without merit.

Mair von Landshut (active c.1485 � 1510), Portrait of a young Woman holding a Flower
Considered by the Spoliation Panel in 2006, this painting will remain in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford which received it as a bequest in 1968.

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Press & Scholarly