New British law lets museums return works stolen by Nazis
Haaretz, 15 November 2009By Ofer Aderet
BERLIN - A law passed Friday in Great Britain allows national museums to return art stolen by the Nazis during World War II to their previous owners or their descendants.
Labour MP Andrew Dismore, who introduced the bill, said, the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act "rights a long-standing injustice."
"While I do not envisage the act having to be used very frequently, this is an important moral step, to ensure that we can close yet a further chapter on the appalling crimes of the Holocaust," Dismore said.
The new law abrogates previous legislation on looted art, which prohibited national institutions from disposing of works illegally obtained during the Nazi era.
British museums are believed to house at least 20 pieces confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish owners. The new bill allows heirs of the artworks' rightful owners to choose whether to accept the art in return or receive financial compensation from the museums.
Previously, national museums in the U.K. - which include the British Museum, British Library and National Gallery - compensated heirs who could prove their families' ownership prior to or during the war.
In 2001, for example, Tate Britain paid 125,000 pounds to the family of the former owner of a work by Dutch painter Jan Griffier. Five years later, the British Museum paid 175,000 pounds to their heirs of an art collector from whom the Nazis had stolen several valuable works.
Culture Minister Margaret Hodge told the BBC it was "a wonderful day" for families who "suffered so terribly during the Nazi era."
"For too long families who had heirlooms stolen from them by the Nazis were unable to reclaim them, although they were the rightful owners," she said.
Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said this was "a great step forward" that confirmed "Britain's commitment to providing justice."
Lord Greville Janner, who supported the measure in the House of Lords, said, "The issue of restitution is of vital importance to me. My entire family in Lithuania and Latvia were murdered by the Nazis; the killers stole all of their property. This bill will at least give families of some Holocaust victims the power to reclaim some of their family property, which is in Britain."
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis confiscated half a million works of art across occupied Europe under the direction of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering. After the war, some of the works were returned to their rightful owners or their descendants, while others found their way into museums around the world or were sold to private collectors.
Experts believe there are still hundreds of thousands of artworks around the world stolen during the Nazi era which have yet to be returned to the families of their former owners.