Bid To Let UK Museums Return Nazi Looted Art

Jewish News 2 April 2009

By Erica Morris 

British museums could soon be given the right to return art looted by the Nazis to Shoah survivors and their heirs following reports that the government is set to back the latest drive in a campaign by Hendon MP Andrew Dismore.

Galleries and museums are currently barred from giving up works and artefacts in their collections, with the law enabling them only to pay compensation.

But now the Labour MP - who was previously among those campaigning for the establishment of the Spoliation Advisory Panel to help resolve disputes over stolen artefacts - is hoping to alter the law regarding museums through a private members' bill to be voted on in the Commons on 15 May. He had previously hoped that the change would be included in a Heritage Bill last year, but that didn't transpire.

"This is a very important initiative and I consider it a bit of unfinished business," he told the Jewish News this week. "What this bill will try to do is give the families the option of reclaiming these works; we will be putting the decision in their hands, where it rightly belongs."

Dismore added: "I expect there will be some who object - there always are with this sort of thing - but if there are I will name them and shame them."
In the coming weeks, Dismore will continue negotiating the text of the Holocaust (stolen art) Restitution Bill, amid concerns that it should not leave the door open for claims over other works of art.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport was quoted by The Guardian as saying the principle of the bill "is very much accepted... There will be attempts to broaden it beyond the Nazi era and one has to be aware of that and draft it in such a way that the risk is eliminated".

Welcoming the latest developments, Lord Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: "This bill is vitally important and long overdue. Survivors and their descendants should have the right to decide whether artwork looted from their families is returned. I am delighted that our government supports this legislation in principle."

Only a small number of pieces in British museums are expected to be affected should the bill be passed, among them, potentially, the 16th century Cupid Complaining to Venus, by Lucas Cranach (pictured).

The piece is currently on display at the National Gallery and was part of Adolf Hitler's private collection of art, though its ownership prior to World War II is not yet known. A National Gallery spokesman told the Jewish News: "Currently under the Museums and Galleries Act 1992 the trustees of the National Gallery are unable to de-accession paintings in any circumstances. As we understand it this would change under the proposed new legislation, and the trustees would be able to restore spoliated works to the original owners or their heirs."
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