Elgin Marbles cast dark shadow over looted art

The Times, 25 May 2005
By Sean O'Neill

MINISTERS could stop the British Museum returning artworks looted by the Nazis to a Jewish family because of fears that they might pave the way for Greece to make a legally binding claim on the Elgin Marbles.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, asked the High Court to clarify whether the museum could exercise a “moral obligation” to return improperly obtained property.

The specific case at issue is a claim by the heirs of Dr Arthur Feldmann for the return of four Old Master drawings taken from the Czech lawyer’s home in Brno by the Gestapo in 1939.

Dr Feldmann was tortured and murdered by the Nazis and his wife, Gisela, died at Auschwitz. The British Museum, which obtained the drawings at auction after the war, wants to return them but cannot do so because of legislation that expressly forbids it to dispose of items from its collections.

Its trustees asked the Attorney-General if they had permission to return the artworks under the terms of the Snowden principle — a legal test that permits charities to give back items that it would be wrong for them to keep.

Lawyers for the museum argue that the case of art looted by the Nazis is highly exceptional and would not create a precedent.

But Lord Goldsmith asked the court to rule and expressed concern that returning the Feldmann drawings could lead to claims against the British Museum and other national collections. In papers submitted to Sir Andrew Morritt, the Vice-Chancellor, who is hearing the case, lawyers for the Attorney-General said: “There are other objects to which a moral claim might be made, of which the Elgin Marbles may be the prime example.”

Will Henderson, counsel for the Attorney-General, told the court that the circumstances of art looted by the Gestapo appeared unique but were not. He added: “Once the principle is established, then it could apply to any objects whatever their provenance. Whether they were looted during the course of the Holocaust or whether they were acquired in unseemly circumstances at any other time. What if the moral claim were very different — if it were a cultural claim rather than a proprietary claim? . . . The door would be open.”

Mr Henderson was referring to the sculptures removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin at the beginning of the 19th century, which are the subject of a lengthy dispute between Athens and London.

The Government’s concerns will disappoint the Feldmann family, which has been negotiating with the British Museum for the return of its artworks since 2002.

The drawings are St Dorothy with the Christ Child, 1508, by a follower of Martin Schongauer, a German engraver; Virgin and Child Adored by St Elizabeth and the Infant St John by Martin Johann Schmidt, from the 18th century; An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo by the 18th-century English artist Nicholas Blakey, and The Holy Family by Niccolo dell’Abbate, the 16th-century Bolognese artist.

AT ISSUE

The British Museum has a number of objects which may be subject to ownership claims including:

  • Aboriginal artefacts: early bark etchings are subject of a claim by Australian Aborigines
  • Rosetta Stone: Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities pursuing a three-month loan for when museum in Gizeh is completed

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article526238.ece
  • http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article526238.ece

     
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