Museums Journal 1 October 2008
By Patrick Steel
National museums opposed to legislation that would enable the return of Nazi loot
The National Museum Directors' Conference (NMDC) has come out against a change in legislation that would allow the return of Nazi loot from national museum collections.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is currently considering an amendment to the Heritage Protection Bill to bring national museums in line with the rest of the museums community on the issue of looted objects. A spokesman for the DCMS said any legislation would apply "very specifically" to items looted in the Nazi era.
At the moment most national museums are prevented by law from deaccessioning such objects from their collections, even in cases where provenance can be proven.
But the NMDC has urged the DCMS not to go ahead with the amendment. In a statement praising the work of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, it said: "Since the panel has proved so effective, and there is no evidence of unsatisfied claims, we feel that the proposed amendment to the Heritage Protection Bill is unnecessary."
Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said: "This represents a complete volte-face by the NMDC, the leading members of which only a year ago publicly affirmed the need for this legislation. They must not be allowed to prevail.
"Their statement that 'there is no evidence of unsatisfied claims' goes against the facts. Only three months ago, the Spoliation Advisory Panel and minister Margaret Hodge expressed their concern at being unable to restitute a Nazi-looted porcelain item in the British Museum to its rightful owner.
"In addition, there are still Nazi-looted works of art in our national museums whose rightful owners may wish for their restitution. The government has made a firm commitment to legislate, most recently in May of this year, while the panel has twice [in 2005 and 2008] asked for legislation to be enacted, so it is essential that this is carried through."
David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool and a member of the NMDC, did not attend the meeting at which the amendment was discussed, but said: "My personal view is that any museums that have legislation that restricts the ability to be ethical and professional need to look at that."
Earlier this year, the British Museum paid £18,000 in compensation after discovering a porcelain plate in its collection had been looted by the Gestapo.
When Museums Journal contacted the heir of the plate's original owner, who did not want to be named, she said: "The plate is part of a collection that my uncle had. I am trying to reassemble as much of it as possible. Of course, I would love to have it back.
"The difficulty is that my case has been resolved, so I have no idea how that would work if the new law is passed."