The Guardian 27 May 2005
London (AP) -- The British Museum is barred by law from handing back four Old Master drawings looted by the Nazis, the high court decided today, in a ruling that may obstruct Greek efforts to reclaim the Parthenon marbles.
The vice chancellor, Sir Andrew Morritt, ruled that the British Museum Act - which protects the collections for posterity - cannot be overridden by a "moral obligation" to return works known to have been plundered.
The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had asked the high court to rule on the drawings after concerns that their return to the heirs of the original owners could create a legal opening for Greece to pursue its claim to the Parthenon marbles.
The four drawings were stolen from the home of Dr Arthur Feldmann by the Gestapo in 1939 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Dr Feldmann was tortured and murdered by the Nazis and his wife Gisela died at Auschwitz. All the drawings were acquired by the British Museum shortly after the second world war.
The museum had argued that the case of art looted by the Nazis is highly exceptional and would not create a precedent.
A spokeswoman for the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which is representing Dr Feldmann's heirs, said it regretted today's decision and that it was now three years since the museum agreed to the family's claim.
"The ruling is significant for all claimants of looted art from the Nazi era, setting aside any possibility of restitution being achieved in this way, and showing that the government ought now to legislate in order to achieve clarity for all claimants," she said.
"The commission very much regrets that this avenue to achieve the return of the drawings is not now open."
She said the family remained confident that a way would be found for them to reclaim the drawings "in accordance with the British Museum's long-standing commitment so to do".
The commission said the claim had been put before the government-appointed spoliation advisory panel that had been awaiting the outcome of this case before proceeding.
Sir Andrew said in his judgment that no moral obligation can justify the museum trustees departing from the law protecting objects forming part of the collections. Sir Andrew said: "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 to transfer any of them to those heirs."
The drawings, for which the museum paid a total of nine guineas in 1946, are now estimated to be worth £150,000.
The Parthenon marbles, are a large collection of sculptures that were brought to Britain between 1801 and 1805 after they were removed from the Parthenon in Athens. Since 1939 the marbles have been housed in the Duveen gallery in the British Museum.
Greece demands the collection be returned. http://www.guardian.co.uk/parthenon/article/0,12119,1494099,00.html