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20.10.2008 Feature Article

Will Britain Join Other Nations In Returning Stolen/looted Artworks To The Rightful Owners?

It looks as if Britain is finally coming to the conclusion that stolen/looted cultural objects should be returned to their rightful owners. According to a report in the Telegraph, new legislation is on the way to allow the British Museum and other national museums to return artworks that were stolen/looted by the Nazis. The legislation will be specifically limited to works stolen/looted during the Nazi era that are now in the possession of many British national galleries and museum. The position until now has been that even if one had all the necessary evidence that a particular piece of work hanging in the British institutions was stolen, confiscated by the Nazis or sold under intimidation to the evil men of Hitler, they could not return them to the owners. They could offer compensation to the owners.

We cannot rejoice now but should be encouraged by this first step. Until the matter has been fully debated in the British Parliament and all those Parliamentarians living in another world, not recognizing the end of the age of Imperialism, have had their say and we have an actual Act of Parliament, many things could happen. The introduction of a Bill in Parliament and the passing of legislation may take a long period but this period should be used by those in favour of the return of the Elgin Marbles and the Benin bronzes to intensify their efforts and strengthen their strategies. If the new legislation is not framed in general terms to allow the return of the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes, no minute should be wasted in putting these two issues on the agenda, preferably separately, bearing in mind the British tendency to deal with such matters one by one rather than taking a principled decision on the general issue.

It has taken the British Government some sixty years after the end of the Nazi regime to recognize that artworks looted by the Nazis should not be accorded any legality and that the British Museum and other British institutions are dishonouring all those who fought against the Nazis when they hang on their walls artworks stolen by the Nazis. It is very late and in most cases, the original owners have gone and are now represented by their inheritors. Unnecessary legal proceedings and suffering has been caused by the inability or unwillingness of successive British governments to recognize plain evil and wrong-doing. But as the saying goes, it is better late than never. We congratulate the British Parliament and wish them well in this endeavour which will restore some of their lost honour.

Kwame Opoku, 20 October, 2008.

From Telegraph (www.telegraph.co.uk )

National galleries to hand back Nazi art

Artworks looted by the Nazis during the Second World War and now held in Britain's national museums and galleries are to be handed back to their owners.

By Jasper Copping

18 Oct 2008

The Tate, the British Museum, and the British Library are all known to hold looted items but are currently prevented by law from giving them back to the families that once owned them.

Now the Government has decided to bring in new legislation to allow the artworks to be moved.

Experts have estimated that there could be several hundred artworks or artefacts in British galleries and museums that were plundered from occupied Europe by the Nazis. Many were seized from Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.

The move is expected reignite the debate over the Elgin Marbles, with campaigners seeking their return to Greece likely to claim the new legislation will set a precedent for museums to hand back items with disputed ownership.

The proposed legislation follows a campaign by Andrew Dismore, the Labour MP for Hendon.

"The owner of an artwork identified as stolen by the Nazis ought to have the right to decide whether they wish for the artwork to be returned," he said.

"Some people may be happy for work to stay in public collections, but they should have the option. At the moment, they are not given that choice”.

"No one knows how many artworks this will relate to but we shouldn't think that just because the war was 60 years ago that this has all finished."

Under the current legislation, all national museums and galleries are prevented from disposing of any of their works. They can only offer compensation to the owners, although private museums are able to return artworks and artefacts.

But the intention to change the law was announced in response to a parliamentary question from Mr Dismore.

In a statement, the Department for Culture Media and Sport said: "The Government are committed to introducing legislation as soon as possible to allow all national museums, that are currently prevented from doing so by the acts of parliament under which they are founded, to return works of art spoliated during the Nazi era."

The new legislation is expected to feature in the Heritage Protection Bill, which is due before Parliament later this year.

In 2000, the Government created a committee, the Spoliation Advisory Panel, to settle cases where people claimed items in British museums had been looted.

Since then, it has advised on eight separate cases and is currently considering a ninth claim. A total of six works of art found to have been plundered by the Nazis were held by national museums or galleries, so could not be returned.

The works – which could now be returned under the new legislation – include "View of Hampton Court Palace" by Jan Griffier the Elder, held by the Tate, as well as four "Old Master" drawings held by the British Museum.

These are: "The Holy Family" by Niccolo dell'Abbate; "An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo", by Nicholas Blakey; "Virgin and Infant Christ, adored by St Elizabeth and the Infant St John", by Martin Johann Schmidt; and "St Dorothy with the Christ Child" by School of Martin Schongauer, which are all held by the British Museum.

The drawings, worth about £150,000, were stolen from Czech lawyer Arthur Feldmann, who was killed by the Nazis. The British Museum bought the drawings for nine guineas in 1946.

Another case involved "The Beneventan Missal", held by the British Library. Until the war, the missal was held in the metropolitan chapter of the Cathedral of Benevento, in southern Italy, and is thought to have been looted during German occupation of the region.

It was bought by the Library after the war, when it was auctioned by Captain Douglas Ash, of the Intelligence Corps, who had bought it in Naples in 1944.

The missal itself was written in the early 12th century. As the museum is unable to return the missal, it has offered to loan it back to Italy.

The most recent case involved a porcelain dish held by the British Museum and a "Monteith" (or glass cooler), at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge.

While the item could be returned by the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is not a national museum, the piece held by the British Museum may not be.

www.telegraph.co.uk

Kwame Opoku, Dr.
Kwame Opoku, Dr., © 2008

This author has authored 251 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwameOpoku

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