Tate Backtracks on Restitution of Constable Painting

Art Law Report 31 March 2015
By Nicholas O'Donnell  

As if there weren’t enough controversy with national advisory commissions’ recommendations about Nazi-looted art, the Tate Gallery in London is apparently reconsidering a recommendation last year by the United Kingdom’s Spoliation Advisory Panel that Beaching a Boat, Brighton (1824) by John Constable should be restituted to heirs of Budapest-based Baron Ferenc Hatvany, who was Jewish.

As reported last year by The Art Newspaper:

Hatvany had bought Beaching a Boat, Brighton at a Paris auction in 1908. In 1942, when Budapest was threatened with Allied bombing, he put many of his paintings in bank vaults for protection, although other pictures remained in his two main residences. Two years later, after the German invasion of Hungary, Hatvany went into hiding, where he remained until Soviet troops entered the country in February 1945. At that point, Red Army soldiers looted the bank vaults.

Beaching a Boat, Brighton was donated to Tate in 1986 by a Mrs P.M. Rainsford, who had acquired it in 1962. That same year, it was owned by a Mr Meyer, who sold it to the London dealer Leger, and it then went to the Broadway Art Gallery in Worcestershire, which sold it to Rainsford. All parties appear to have been acting in good faith.

The UK, like the United States, generally will not allow a good-faith purchaser to acquire title of an object that was stolen.  Thus, the “true owner” (Havatny) prevails.  The Spoliation Panel last year went even further, however, criticizing the Tate for its provenance research.  According to the Panel, “It would not have been difficult to have made enquires of the Hungarian government, [which] included the painting on its official [1998] list of looted art from the late 1940s.”

Now, however, the museum is claiming otherwise.  Again from The Art Newspaper, a Tate spokesperson said:

New information has come to light on the history of the painting Beaching a Boat, Brighton, 1924, by John Constable in Tate’s collection. This was reviewed by Tate. The Tate trustees have now approached the [DCMS] Secretary of State to invite the Spoliation Advisory Panel to review the new information. We cannot comment further at this stage.

This has the disconcerting feel of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose aspect of so many of these proceedings.  Now, even when the recommendation is for restitution, a reexamination is requested.  When a flawed process recommends against restitution, however, the dissatisfied (Jewish) claimants are portrayed as “greedy.”

Make no mistake, there is a subtle backlash against the Washington Principles afoot among many national collections, whether or not that is the case in the Tate painting.  The Washington Principles have always allowed a degree of wiggle room as to what they require that allows for some manipulation, and they can serve as window dressing for shoddy treatment.  Just today, an Austrian museum director suggested that there ought to be a 20-year cap starting now on restitution claims.  That is certainly convenient for national collections that can be reasonably sure that claimants lack the information or resources to keep looking.  But it is hardly the purpose of the Washington Principles, and it should be resisted.
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