Art stolen by Nazis 'cannot be returned'

The Scotsman, 27 May 2005
Lord Goldsmith had asked for a clarification of...
Lord Goldsmith had asked for a clarification of the law.
Picture: Stefan Rousseau/ PA


IT WOULD be illegal for the British Museum to return art- works looted by the Nazis to a Jewish family, despite its "moral obligation" to do so, a High Court judge ruled yesterday.

Vice-Chancellor Sir Andrew Morritt ruled that the British Museum Act - which protects the collections for posterity - cannot be overridden by the ethical merit of a claim involving plundered art.

The heirs of the art's original owners, Dr Arthur Feldmann, a Czech lawyer, and his wife Gisela, who died at the hands of the Nazis, said they were "very upset" at the ruling.
They called on the government to introduce legislation that would allow the pieces - four Old Master drawings stolen from the family home in Brno by the Gestapo in 1939 - to be returned to them swiftly.

Lawyers for the British Museum, which had agreed in principle three years ago to the restitution of the drawings to the family, also said they were "disappointed" by the outcome of the test case.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, had asked for clarification of the law after warning that if a moral obligation to restore such objects could override the act, it might allow Greece to reclaim the Elgin Marbles.

However, the judge said this case would have no implication for other claims.

Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which is representing Dr Feldmann's heirs, said the ruling had "prolonged the agony of a family who have already suffered".

She said: "The looting of these drawings was over 60 years ago, the claim was three years ago and the British Museum acted with alacrity. They never expected it would take so long.

"The family are very upset by the outcome but nevertheless they have confidence in the British Museum's commitment to restitution. The government needs to move swiftly."

The museum's trustees had asked the Attorney General if they had permission to return the artworks under the terms of the Snowdon principle - a legal test that permits charities to give back items judged wrong to keep.

Ms Webber said the ruling was significant for all claimants of looted art from the Nazi era, as it set aside any possibility of restitution being achieved without further legislation.

Sir Andrew said in his judgment that neither the Crown nor the Attorney General had any power to dispense with "due observance" of acts of parliament.

A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said: "We welcome clarification in this important area, which will contribute to our consideration of a Spoliation Advisory Panel recommendation that the Secretary of State consider legislation to return the spoliated items.

"The case confirms that legislation is necessary. We will now look urgently at this issue."

Dr Feldmann was tortured and murdered by the Nazis and died in prison.

Mrs Feldmann died at Auschwitz, but their children survived.

The drawings, for which the museum paid a total of nine guineas in 1946 at auction, are now estimated to be worth £150,000. · 76 Gloucester Place · London WIU 6HJ · +44 (0)20 7487 3401
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