NMDC Spoliation of works of art during the Holocaust and World War II period: Statement of Principles and Proposed Actions, 1998 


National Museums Directors' Conference (NMDC) Statement of Principles and Proposed Actions: Spoliation of works of art during the Holocaust and World War II period


November 1998

The Statement of Principles and Proposed Actions was finalised and adopted by the NDMC in November 1998 and was presented to the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in December 1998.

Statement of Principles

1. Introduction

1.1 The principles and recommended actions outlined below were drawn up at the request of the National Museums Directors' Conference (NMDC) by a working group drawn from member institutions and have been approved by the NMDC.

1.2 The NMDC is a UK wide voluntary association of twenty-six national cultural institutions receiving funding from central government and including twenty museums, the three national libraries, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and Edinburgh and the Public Record Office. For the purposes of this document all actions shall be taken to refer to the museums and libraries.

1.3 The powers of the institutions comprising the NMDC are governed by statute or Royal Charter and their expenditure is subject to scrutiny by the Government departments that fund them. Restitution or compensation in any single case may therefore be affected by such statutes or Royal Charters and as a result may depend on governmental consent, and/or assistance.

1.4 This document outlines the broad principles and proposed actions agreed by the NMDC. It is not intended to create or alter any existing legal right or obligation.

1.5 It also recommends the development of more detailed documents:

a. practical guidance for institutions on surveying collections and dealing with new acquisitions and loans;

b. guidance and information for enquirers or potential claimants;

c. general guidance for institutions on dealing with claims to be developed in conjunction with Resource: The Council for Museums, Libraries and Archives, and the Museums Association (MA).

1.6 For the purposes of interpreting this document, wrongful taking shall mean any act of theft or other deprivation, the legality of which is open to reasonable challenge, and which was committed during the Holocaust and World War II period.

2. Statement of Principles

2.1 NMDC recognises and deplores the wrongful taking of works of art that constituted one of the many horrors of the Holocaust and World War II.

2.2 NMDC members support the principle outlined in the MA Code of Practice for Governing Bodies dated 1994 which states that the 'Collections Management Policy should ensure, through the appropriate documentation, that the museum does not acquire or exhibit any stolen or illegally exported works and that it acquires legal title to items accessioned to its collections'.

2.3 NMDC is committed to working with other institutions and organisations both within the UK and internationally to increase awareness and understanding of the facts surrounding the spoliation of works of art by the Nazis and others during the Holocaust and World War II period.

2.4 NMDC is committed to giving prompt and serious consideration to claims to title for specific works in their collections.

2.5 In line with its members' general policies for and commitment to increasing public access to information about their collections, NMDC advocates a practical approach to reviewing and making accessible information relating to provenance of their collections, taking into account the nature and size of the collections concerned and the resources available.

2.6 NMDC advocates a process of reviewing, reporting and researching the issue of works of art wrongfully taken which respects the dignity of all parties and the complexity of the issue. Each claim represents a unique situation which must be reviewed thoroughly on a case by case basis taking into account both the interests of individuals and the statutory and legal responsibilities of the institutions.

3. Actions concerning research and access to information

3.1 NMDC recommends that each national museum, gallery or library should have an action plan with regard to research on and access to information about their existing collections.

This will vary in scope and timescale according to the size and nature of the collections and the resources available and may include:

  • research based around specific enquiries;
  • collation and monitoring of new information about provenance for this period as part of ongoing research;
  • identification of objects for which provenance is unknown for any point during the years 1933-45.

    The guidance referred to at 1.5 a above will advise on issues to consider in prioritising research and making information available.

    3.2 Each institution will nominate a person as the main point of contact for enquiries on this subject who will also keep a central record of research being undertaken.

    3.3 NMDC will in turn keep a central record of the nature of the research being undertaken in each institution.

    3.4 NMDC undertakes to draw up guidance for potential enquirers including information about the collections of each institution, points of contacts, and types of information that may be available (eg databases, files, Websites).

    3.5 NMDC plans to work together with overseas colleagues, the UK Government, MA, Resource, the Holocaust Educational Trust and other UK organisations to collect details of useful information sources, for example about missing objects, and the history of the movement of works of art during the period.

    4. Procedures for acquisitions and incoming loans

    4.1 In accordance with standard good practice institutions acquiring any new object should:

  • exercise due diligence in satisfying themselves that the vendor or donor or executors have good title to the object;
  • in accordance with the MA guidance (referred to above) and registration requirements of Resource take reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that the object has not been wrongfully taken without restitution having taken place subsequently;
  • seek from the vendor, donor or executors the fullest possible information with regard to provenance including for the years 1933-45.

    4.2 In accordance with standard practice all information with regard to provenance collected during the acquisition process must be recorded on the main acquisition file.

    4.3 For unique works of art with a value in excess of the level requiring an export licence, for which the provenance in the period 1933-45 is uncertain, and which may have been outside the UK for all or part of this period, it is recommended that a check be made with the Art Loss Register and/or other appropriate databases of missing works of art/claimants. Detailed guidance (referred to at 1.5a above) will provide suggestions regarding other types of check that may be carried out, depending on the nature of the acquisition.

    4.4 If there is no evidence of wrongful taking then the acquisition may proceed. If there is evidence of wrongful taking then the institution should not proceed to acquire the object.

    4.5 Guidance for staff (referred at 1.5a above) should include information and advice on

  • use of warranties
  • information to seek from vendor or lender
  • suggested sources of information and approaches to checking provenance.

    4.6 Consistent with current practice institutions should publish, display or otherwise make accessible all recent gifts, bequests and purchases thereby making them available for further research examination and study.

    4.7 Borrowing institutions should ensure that the terms of the UK Government indemnity record the fact that it does not cover any third party claims or draw the attention of the lender to this fact.

    4.8 In the event that an institution believes that an object it is seeking to borrow is, or is likely to become, the subject of a claim, it should not proceed with the loan.

    5. Discovery of the wrongful taking of works of art

    5.1 If, in the light of new information, a member institution becomes aware that an object in its collection was or is likely to have been wrongfully taken during the Holocaust and World War II period and was not subsequently restituted this information should be made public and recorded with NMDC, Resource and DCMS and the known facts regarding the provenance of the work shall be shown on object labels and in any new publications relating to the work.

    5.2 Making public means issuing a press release to all media to which the institution in question usually issues press releases and to such principal additional media within the UK as are generally known to serve any ethnic or national group likely to have a particular interest in the matter. The guidance referred to at 1.5a and 4.5 above will provide advice on such additional media.

    5.3 An institution would normally expect to receive any claims within a period of six years from the publication of new information relating to provenance in accordance with 5.1 and 5.2 above.

    5.4 If a claimant shows within a reasonable period of compliance by an institution with 5.1 and 5.2 above that on a balance of probabilities a work of art was wrongfully taken during the Holocaust and World War II period, and that but for such wrongful taking, the claimant would have an interest in the object, then the institution will seek to resolve the matter in an equitable, appropriate and mutually agreeable manner, (taking into account the possibility of competing third party claims) as permitted by its governing legislation and in conjunction with the DCMS.

    6. Processes for dealing with enquiries and claims

    6.1 Each institution shall nominate a member of staff as the main point of contact for enquiries and claims.

    6.2 Should an institution receive a claim that an object in its collection was wrongfully taken during the Holocaust and World War II period it shall record the date and nature of the claim both in a register kept by it for that purpose and in the dossier of the object concerned and shall, as soon as practicable, advise NMDC, Resource and DCMS of the claim. Within the limits of its then existing resources the institution shall review such claim promptly and thoroughly with the claimant including requesting evidence of the claimant's interest in the object to help determine its provenance.

    6.3 Guidance for enquirers and claimants should include information and advice on searching for objects and information that should be included with a claim.

    6.4 NMDC should keep a central record of the progress of all claims received.

    7. Recommendations for the wider museums community in conjunction with Resource and MA

    7.1 NMDC recommends:

    a. a UK wide survey of objects which institutions currently believe might have been wrongfully taken during the Holocaust and World War II period.

    b. subject to the nature of collections and the resources available a survey of objects the provenance of which during all or part of that period is unknown. This will have to be conducted in conjunction with the MA, Resource and the Regional Agencies.

    7.2 Regional Agencies should discuss with their members and Resource which other actions recommended for national museums in this document are appropriate for them to take.

    National Museum Directors' Conference
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