Lack of provenance is not necessarily suspect

Financial Times 18 July 2015
Letter from Julian Agnew, Old Master dealer and former Chairman of the Society of London Art Dealers, in reply to the letter of David Lewis, Co-Chair, Commission for Looted Art in Europe, of 11 July

Sir, David Lewis’s reply (July 11) on behalf of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe is certainly written with the best of intentions but does not answer the points that I made in my letter (July 4). I am sure that many works of art have been restituted through non-profit organisations such as his or through lawyers acting pro bono. However, there are examples of high value objects where intermediaries have taken as much as 50 per cent of the value with the inevitable consequence that they go to auction. The result is that they are only transitionally restituted to the heirs of those from whom they were originally confiscated but immediately and inevitably sold on to new owners who have no previous connection with them.

Second, 70 years on from 1945, there is very frequently a second innocent victim in such cases. Mr Lewis seems to think that it is only a lack of care that prevents purchasers from establishing an exact provenance during and after the Nazi era. I believe the National Gallery in London conducted an exercise some years ago that revealed that about 300 paintings in the collection did not have a clear provenance during the Nazi period: only one claim followed its publication. The ownership of works of art is not registered in the same way as property and lack of provenance does not necessarily imply something suspect. A second loss can in some circumstances compound the first; there is no difference in this respect between a private collector and a public museum, since in a real sense public collections belong to us all. The horrors of the Holocaust are of course ever present in the minds of those whose families suffered and died as a result. However, unfortunately the transitory restitution of material objects does not bring the victims of a murderous regime back to life. For both the reasons that I have given, there is a good case for a reasonable time limitation on restitution claims.
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