Court prevents return of art stolen by Nazis

The Telegraph 28 May 2005
Joshua Rozenberg

The British Museum is barred by law from handing back four Old Master drawings even though there is no doubt that they were looted by the Nazis, a senior High Court judge ruled yesterday.

Sir Andrew Morritt, the head of the Chancery Division, held that the legislation under which the museum operated could not be overridden by a "moral obligation" to return plundered works.

The case represented a ‘unique moral claim’

There was concern that if the case had gone the other way, it could have led to the return to Greece of the Elgin Marbles, although the British Museum does not accept that there is a moral claim to the Parthenon Sculptures.

The British Museum Act of 1753 requires its collections to be preserved "for public use to all posterity" though later legislation allows the museum to sell duplicates, objects made after 1850 and others unfit to be retained.

Those exceptions did not cover the drawings, three of which were bought in 1946 for less than £10. They are now valued at £150,000.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, is allowed to authorise a payment out of charitable funds to meet a "moral obligation". He sought guidance from the court on whether this principle allowed the British Museum to override its statutory obligations and return items it lawfully owned.

It is accepted that the four drawings were stolen by the Gestapo in 1939 from the home of Dr Arthur Feldmann in Czechoslovakia.

The museum said that the case represented "a unique moral claim which they wish to meet". But yesterday's ruling meant that the drawings could not be returned without an Act of Parliament, unless Dr Feldmann's heirs could prove that the museum had not validly purchased them.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which is representing Dr Feldmann's heirs, said after the ruling: "The commission very much regrets that this avenue to achieve the return of the drawings is not now open to the museum."

Sir Andrew said in his judgment that neither the Crown nor the Attorney General had any power to dispense with "due observance" of Acts of Parliament.

He concluded that no moral obligation could justify the museum trustees departing from the law protecting objects forming part of the collections.

William Henderson, representing the Attorney General at the hearing on Tuesday, told Sir Andrew that if the Act could be overridden, the "door would be open" to claims against any museum.
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