A symbol of families and homes that were obliterated

Financial Times 11 July 2015
Letter from David Lewis, Co-Chair, Commission for Looted Art in Europe, London, in response to Julian Agnew's letter of 4 July.

Sir, We noted with interest the letter from Julian Agnew (July 4). The fact that a restituted object may or may not be sold is hardly relevant to the overriding obligation to return stolen items to the rightful owners. The art market in its various forms does indeed take a very considerable percentage of the sale proceeds of objects that are sold. Whether it is the purchase or sale commission from an auction house or the profit margins retained by dealers or lawyers seeking remuneration that seems hardly controversial.

It is also a fact that the overwhelming majority of restituted items are of low value and are rarely sold. Their return is a symbol of families and homes that were obliterated. There are indeed well publicised cases of works of relatively high value but that is indeed one of the “complexities of the art market”. High value items are publicised and low value items are not. That applies to auction houses and art dealers alike. Mr Agnew’s reference to the Bloch-Bauer Klimt is hardly relevant either. The fact that it was purchased by a private owner merely reinstates its original private ownership. That private owner is as free as anyone else to do as he may wish in the future — to retain, display or sell. If that may be thought of as a “financial merry-go-round” that would apply to the purchase and sale of anything and is a highly ambiguous comment.

It is certainly true that from time to time there are innocent victims in this situation where an object of art is bought in good faith by a private owner because the vendors or their agents did not disclose or investigate the accurate history. In such matters it is a question of discussion and fair judgment as to what solution is right, proper and reasonable. Where an object is in private hands continuously since the end of the second world war it may frequently be thought that there is no innocent victim.

In the case of public bodies, the Washington Principles established in 1998 lay down a very clear code of conduct. There will no doubt be a time when it may be considered that there is a limitation on the pursuit of such looted objects. Twenty years or so after the effective availability of information following the fall of the Soviet Union is not that time, particularly when most countries even in western Europe have not fulfilled their obligations under the Washington Principles to identify and publish questionable or looted works in their public collections so that their location may be known.

For the record, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe is a non-profit body and, although its expert team might be described as part of Mr Agnew’s “whole trade of researchers”, it gives pro bono advice to the art market, museum world and private individuals alike, maintains records and negotiates fairly with both owners and claimants of looted works as part of a process to bring justice and alleviate at least partially some of the actions of Nazi Germany in looting both lives and possessions between 1933 and 1945.,Authorised=false.html?
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