Tension Between Museums and Nazi Spoliation Claimants

It should come as no surprise that there are tensions between museums and claimants over how to respond to claims for works of art stolen or appropriated by the Nazis.  Combine the general reluctance of many museums to allow transparency with the complicated stories of many works looted during World War II, and you have a recipe for ongoing disputes and mistrust.  This should explain why litigation may be a crude solution to many of these disputes, and why other nations—mainly in Europe—have done a better job at resolving these disputes than the United States. 

Robin Cembalest gives an overview for ARTnews, offering reactions from both sides.  The dispute stems from a basic disagreement of what kinds of wrongdoing should constitute loot.  Is a forced sale, or a sale under duress the same as outright theft?  Wesley Fisher, director of resaearch at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany argues “It is embarrassing that countries that previously did not have such good records in this field, such as Austria, are doing a very good job . . .  And the United States is not doing as well as it was.”  AAMD president Kaywin Feldman attributes the reluctance of some institutions to return objects to resources, “The real problem is that museums and claimants need help with research”.  I think both of those sides offer some truth, though paying for increased provenance research would surely be less expensive than litigating a claim.  At least part of the difficulty stems from different ideas of what constitute a looted work, and perhaps a commission modeled after the United Kingdom’s Spoliation Advisory Panel would offer a less controversial means of resolving these disputes.

  1. Robin Cembalest, Tensions are rising between the restitution community and U.S. museums over the proper way to handle Holocaust art claims, ARTnews, October, 2010, http://artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=3073 (last visited Sep 27, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

First British Repatriation after Nazi-Era Law

The British Library will be returning the Benevento Missal, which was stolen from a cathedral during World War II.  The British Library has possessed the book since 1947.  This is the first repatriation of an actual object under the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act which applies only to claims during the Holocaust era, 1933-45.  The Spoliation Advisory Panel recommended the missal should be returned four years ago to the cathedral.

It was brought to Britain by an intelligence officer, Captain Douglas Ash, who bought it in Naples in 1944 and later auctioned it in London.
Captain Ash wrote in a letter: “I bought an old book in Naples in April 1944, knowing nothing about it, except that it was very old, being described by the second-hand bookseller as molto antico … I am interested in anything old and have a collection of swords and armour, but this book is completely beyond me.”
How the book reached Naples is unknown, but the cathedral argued successfully that it vanished from its library after it was bombed in September 1943, directly relating the loss to “circumstances of the mayhem of war”. Jeremy Scott, of the law firm Withers, who represented the cathedral on a pro bono basis, welcomed the new law. “I will be submitting a renewed claim [on the cathedral’s behalf] after it comes into force,” he said.

By all accounts this was the right thing to do with the missal.  Yet the wrongful purchase here had little connection with the holocaust, only during the “holocaust era”.  It was a sale which occurred in the wake of armed conflict, and presumably the missal was appropriated in an effort to remove valuable objects from the cathedral in anticipation of allied military action. 

Will this signal a creep toward increased repatriation for objects in other institutions, and for other historical periods?  This law has a limited scope, and will expire in 10 years.  In the United States much of the legal groundwork for repatriation first came in the context of holocaust-era claims via repatriation lawsuits.  It will be interesting to see whether a similar development may take hold in the U.K. in the wake of this law and the coming claims.   

  1. Ben Hoyle, British Library to return Benevento Missal under Nazi loot law – Times Online, The Times, December 1, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com