Institute of Art and Law to update guidance on restitution cases

Antiques Trade Gazette 19 March 2020
By Alex Capon

Arts Council England has appointed the Institute of Art and Law to help form new guidance for institutions around the thorny issues of restitution and repatriation of cultural objects.

Claims made over ‘looted art’ housed in museum collections, as well as items appearing on the market, have become an increasingly prominent and complex issue for both the public sector and the trade. But the most recent guidance available for public bodies in England dates from 2000 and it is this that ACE have decided to update.

The antiquities and tribal art sectors in particular have been affected by a changing cultural climate over recent years. Nation states like Egypt and Greece, heritage bodies, academics and also social media users have been making increasingly loud protests over what they regard as pieces of ‘stolen’ history.
In the UK it was announced in November that 43 sacred and ceremonial objects in the collection of Manchester Museum would be “unconditionally” restored to four different indigenous Aboriginal groups in Australia. Many of these objects are believed to have arrived in the country over a century ago.

While Nigeria has not waived any claim to the ownership of around 4000 Benin artefacts that were taken by the British army in 1897 (major museums across Europe where they are now housed have now agreed to loan some of the famous bronzes back to Nigeria next year), the issue of the Parthenon marbles looks set to become even more politicised after Greece’s attempt to include it in the Brexit negotiations.

‘Proactive approach’

ACE is now aiming to take some of the initiative itself to “encourage a more proactive and coordinated approach across UK museums”. The new guidance on restitutions, which will be published in Autumn 2020, follows Germany and The Netherlands also making recent changes to its guidance for museums in this regard, while in France a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron has raised the prospect of thousands of African artworks in French museums being repatriated.

It will cover moral, ethical and legal considerations across all areas of museum activity, including proactive collections research and building relationships with international cultural institutions and communities. It will also give advice for dealing with claims and making decisions on the potential return of objects. It is envisaged that it will provide a practical tool for UK institutions by focusing on case studies, best practice and signposting to other resources.

The guidance will be made publicly available and will also likely be relevant for private collectors and organisations, as well as members of trade who specialise in areas such as ancient art for example.

Case-by-case basis

While many observers will be keen to see if it is likely to open the door for more restitutions and repatriation, ACE pointed out that it “will not signify a change in UK government policy, nor direct museums towards any particular outcome”. Instead it “recognises that restitution should be considered on a case-by-case basis”.

The Institute of Art and Law team has expertise in restitution and international cultural property issues and will be working with Professor Janet Ulph from the University of Leicester. Together they will be conducting research and consultation across the UK museum sector and also with international museums and representatives of claimant communities.

Kate Bellamy, the director for museums and cultural property at ACE said: “In recognition of the growing interest and debate around restitution and repatriation, the Arts Council is delighted to have appointed the Institute of Art and Law to develop new guidance on this important and complex issue. We look forward to working with them to fulfil our aim of supporting museums in dealing with restitution issues and promoting best practice.”

Alexander Herman, assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law, said: "We have worked for many years with museum professionals who often tell us there is little in the way of guidance for dealing with claims for restitution and repatriation and related issues. We therefore applaud Arts Council England in taking this step and look forward to working with them to produce clear and practical guidance for the sector. UK Museums have an opportunity to play a leading role in this area.”

ACE said the guidance will be applicable to institutions of all sizes and types including national museums, local authorities, independent bodies and universities.
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