Anti-Seizure Legislation

The Times today published a letter to the editor written by a handful of members of the House of Lords who have serious concerns over the Government’s proposal to provide immunity to stolen and looted works of art which are on display in the UK. The letter is reproduced below.

Anti-Seizure Legislation of this sort is quite common. The Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) held a consultation on the issue last spring, a summary of which is available here. The legislative proposal is an attempt to bring the UK in line with a great number of other nations, which do routinely provide anti-seizure protection for works of art which are exhibited on loan. I’m not sure what the proposal this letter refers to is based on, however this letter reveals a lack of understanding of how many of these anti-seizure provisions work, they do not always apply to stolen works, and anti-seizure provisions certainly do not mean UK institutions will be implicit in theft or nefarious activity.

For example, in the US, anti-seizure provisions do not always apply to stolen works. In New York, the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law 12.03, was changed in 2000 to limit its scope to civil proceedings only. Similarly, the Texas anti-seizure legislation adopted in 1999 under the Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code dictates that works of art on loan may not be seized, except for stolen artworks. In addition, the Federal Immunity from Seizure Act, 22 U.S.C. Section 2459 requires applicants seeking protection to certify that it has no reason to know of any circumstances with respect to the potential for competing ownership claims.

Again, I’m not aware of the specific provisions of this proposal, but if other recent cultural property legislation in the UK is any indicator, there might be serious unintended problems with it. The Recent Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 had a number of loopholes rendering it essentially useless. The essential issue here is whether UK museums will be able to compete with other museums in the world for traveling exhibitions. On balance, I think it does make sense to allow museums to display works, as it allows a greater number of visitors to view and appreciate works from other nations and artists.

Stolen art works

Sir, We are deeply concerned at the Government’s proposal to give complete immunity to those who wish to display stolen and looted art works by making them available for exhibition in this country. The proposed legislation, buried in the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill, would provide automatic protection from seizure to lenders outside Britain, making them safe from the legitimate claims of the rightful owners.

The justification is that the UK’s position as a leading centre for world-class exhibitions will be jeopardised unless all loans are protected from seizure. This reasoning results from pressure exerted by museums and those overseas whose concern for the provenance of art works owned by them is at best cavalier. In fact, the result will be that Britain will become one of the few countries in the West where such ill-gotten gains can be displayed with impunity and where the rights of the true owners will be so easily frustrated.

The public interest must surely be in upholding the rule of law, rather than promoting an international free-for-all through the unrestricted circulation of tainted works of art. Do we really wish to educate our children to have no respect for history, legality and ethical values by providing museums with the opportunity freely to exhibit stolen property?

The morally correct and legally responsible approach, adopted by many countries, is for objects proposed for loan to galleries and museums to be subject to rigorous inquiries to determine their provenance and that rightful owners have the opportunity to recover works surfacing in this way. The current proposals, giving automatic and indiscriminate protection against seizure mean that otherwise respectable institutions in this country will have no reason to make such inquiries. This legislation shames us and should be opposed rigorously.

Liberal Democrat




Liberal Democrat



Liberal Democrat

Liberal Democrat



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