Looted pictures' claim against British Museum

The Guardian, 28 May 2002
Maev Kennedy

A claim has been lodged against the British Museum for the return of four beautiful old master drawings which are claimed to have been stolen from a Jewish collector who died in prison after Nazi torture.

The claim is the first against a British collection demanding the return of works of art. The only other claim so far was against the Tate, for a Thames landscape, but in that case the owner's descendants sought compensation, not the return of the picture.

Anne Webber, co-chairwoman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which has lodged the claim on behalf of the family, said: "Often in these case the works of art are particularly precious when they are all that remains of a family that has been destroyed. In this case collecting the drawings was very much an act of love, by a man described as "a passionate collector" - it was very personal, and very much part of the family's treasured memories of that man."

The four drawings are claimed to have belonged to a pre-war collection belonging to Arthur Feldmann a Czech lawyer. After the Nazi invasion in 1939, he was jailed and tor tured, and his wife died in a concentration camp, while some of his children and relatives fled the country.

Since the war, members of his family have been searching for his collection of over 750 drawings.

Three of the disputed drawings were bought on behalf of the British Museum at Sotheby's in 1946. The fourth was part of a bequest from Campbell Dodgson, a former BM curator.

The claim will ring alarm bells among directors of British collections because the drawings were not identified as having a suspect provenance in the museum's audit of its holdings.

BM director Robert Anderson said yesterday: "We have every sympathy for the family and we will be giving this matter our urgent attention."

The disputed works are: The Holy Family, by Niccolò dell Abbate, Italian 16th century; St Dorothy with the Christ Child, by a follower of Martin Schongauer, German 1508; Virgin and Child adored by St Elizabeth and the infant St John, by Martin Johann Schmidt, German 18th century; An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo by Nicholas Blakey, English 18th century.

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