Court rejects return of art looted by Nazis

Reuters 28 May 2005

LONDON: A court ruled yesterday the British Museum could not return four artworks looted by the Nazis, a judgment which closed off an avenue that could have helped Greece get back the Elgin Marbles from Britain.

The government’s top legal advisor, Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith, had asked the High Court to establish whether the British Museum – home to treasures like the Marbles and the Rosetta Stone – had a moral duty to return property obtained improperly.

The museum wants to return four Old Master drawings stolen by the Nazis from Jewish collector Arthur Feldmann in 1939, but British law prevents it disposing of anything in its collection.

However, Judge Andrew Morritt found that no moral obligation could override the British Museum Act.

“In my judgment only legislation or a bona fide compromise of a claim of the heirs of Dr Feldmann to be entitled to the four drawings could entitle the Trustees (of the British Museum) to transfer them to any of those heirs,” Morritt said.

If the court had ruled that Goldsmith could give permission for the works to be returned, it might have given fresh impetus for efforts to get the museum to hand back other works whose ownership is in dispute.

The Elgin Marbles, a series of statues and fragments, were removed from the Parthenon in Athens by British ambassador Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and sold to the British Museum.

Greece has demanded them back almost ever since, most recently for last summer’s Olympic Games. The museum said at the time that returning the friezes would rip the heart out of a collection that tells the story of human civilisation.

“The British Museum Trustees do not accept that there is a moral claim to the Parthenon Sculptures, nor to any objects in the collection other than the Feldmann drawings,” it said in a statement on Friday.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), which represents the Feldmann family, said it regretted that the museum had no legal way of returning the paintings.

The CLAE said the court decision made it clear that in the vast majority of cases the only way for Nazi-looted art to be returned would be through legislation. The government committed itself to a change in the law five years ago.
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