Judge blocks return of pictures looted from victim of Nazis

The Guardian, 28 May 2005
Sandra Laville

Relatives of a Jewish art collector whose drawings were bought by the British Museum after being looted by the Nazis expressed "distress and disappointment" yesterday when a judge ruled that the museum had no powers to return them despite wishing to do so.

In a test case in the high court, Sir Andrew Morritt, the vice-chancellor, said that "no moral obligation" could justify the restitution of objects in the museum's collection because it would be in breach of the law.

Three years ago, trustees of the museum told the family of Albert Feldmann there was a compelling case for the return of four Old Master drawings looted by the Nazis from his home in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1939.

The museum had hoped for a special dispensation from the law if an exceptional moral case could be proved for their return. But the judge rejected this yesterday, saying only a change in the 1963 Museums Act would allow them to do so.

The government was told five years ago that the law must be changed so that families who had a rightful claim to work stolen from them by the Nazis were not frustrated by legal barriers. But no legislation has been brought forth.

A spokesman for the Feldmann family said: "They are very distressed and disappointed that it is taking so much time to return these paintings ... You can imagine how difficult it is for the family to understand why it has not been possible for them to have the drawings returned to them yet."

Dr Feldmann's collection of 750 drawings was considered one of Europe's finest. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, his home was raided and he and his wife were seized and sent to a concentration camp, where he died.

Three of the drawings were bought by the museum at Sotheby's in 1946. The fourth was bequeathed to its collection three years later.

The family made a claim for the art after documents located by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe revealed conclusive evidence that the drawings, said to be worth about £150,000, had been stolen by the Nazis. Museum trustees agreed that there was a "compelling case" for their return. But, under the 1963 law, they were barred from breaking up the collection without the permission of the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith.

The attorney believed that the return of the drawings could set a precedent that would leave the door open to other moral claims - including one from the Greeks for the Parthenon (or Elgin) marble sculptures. He asked the high court for a ruling.

The judge said the issue of the marbles was "irrelevant", but ruled that a legal change was still required for the return of the Feldmann pictures.

Anne Webber, of the Looted Art Commission, said a parliamentary committee had warned the government five years ago that the law needed to be changed. The committee chairman, Gerald Kaufman, said: "Where a claim has been upheld and restitution seen as appropriate it is essential that the legislative barrier is removed. It would be absurd if restitution was not possible in those circumstances due to the dilatoriness of ministers."

A British Museum spokeswoman expressed disappointment that the pictures could not be returned in this "exceptional" case without a law change. A Department for Culture, Media and Sport official said the judge's ruling had clarified the issue, adding: "We will now look seriously at the case for legislative action."

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


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