Press Release

70 Years and Counting: The Final Opportunity? International conference, London, 12 September 2017

UK Government renews its commitment to return Nazi-looted art to rightful owners 

  • Government calls for stronger efforts from the international community to return Nazi-looted art to original owners
  • Government announces proposals to renew the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009
  • Hundreds of experts to attend international spoliation conference in London in September

The UK Government will call for stronger efforts to return Nazi-looted art to its original owners at the first European conference dedicated to the issue in five years.

Hundreds of experts from the UK, Germany, France, Holland, Austria and across the globe will gather in London in September. The Conference ‘70 Years and Counting: The final opportunity?’ aims to strengthen partnerships, build greater cooperation on spoliation and examine how the process of returning stolen artworks can be accelerated.

The conference comes as the Government strengthens its commitment to these issues by announcing that it will seek to extend the UK’s Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act, which gives national museums powers to return works of art found to be looted during the Third Reich.

John Glen, Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism said:

"More than 70 years after the end of the Second World War, some families are still waiting for their cultural property to be returned. We want countries from across the continent to help right this historic wrong.

"I hope this conference will raise awareness of this important issue and help to reunite people with their precious heirlooms. Our plans to renew the Holocaust Act underline our commitment to building a fairer society and we will do everything in our power to return Nazi-looted art to its rightful owners.”

The Act expires on 11 November 2019 and the Government will seek to renew the powers indefinitely.

It is estimated that 20 per cent of Europe’s cultural treasures were stolen or plundered by Nazi Germany, most notably from Jewish families, and over 100,000 of these works are still lost, presumed to be in both private and public collections.

The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009, gave 17 UK national institutions, including the British Museum and the National Gallery, the power to return items lost during the Nazi era to their original owners or their heirs. Before the Act came into force in 2009, the governing rules of national museums prevented them from disposing of such items in their collections.

The UK is a world-leader in providing solutions to this issue and its national museums have undertaken detailed research of their collections to identify objects with uncertain provenance between the years 1933-1945. This research is held on the recently-upgraded online database available on http://collectionstrust.org.uk/cultural-property-advice/ which is actively maintained by editors from the 47 contributing UK museums, coordinated by Collections Trust on behalf of Arts Council England.

In 2000, the UK Government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel to examine claims for Nazi-looted art in British collections. Since then the Panel has advised on 20 such claims and 23 cultural objects have either been returned to families or they have received compensation.

Sir Donnell Deeny, who is joint Chair of the Spoliation Advisory Panel alongside Sir Alan Moses, said:

"It is only right that we offer fair and just solutions to those who lost art looted by the Nazis during and before World War II.

"The Panel has been an integral part of that process since the millennium and we welcome the Government's intention that it should continue. We also look forward to joining our European counterparts to discuss these issues and their significance for Europe and the rest of the world today in London this autumn.”

Anne Webber who is Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe alongside David Lewis, said:

"Almost 20 years since the commitments made by 44 countries at the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, little provenance research has been completed or published and few fair and equitable claims processes have been established.

"Although many of the survivors are now passing away, their children and heirs still urgently seek the transparency, accountability and justice that was promised, and the restitution of what was taken and never returned. We welcome the UK government’s strengthening of its commitment to return, and its determination to renew and revitalise these international imperatives.”

Notes to editors:

1. 70 Years and Counting: Europe’s final opportunity?’ will be held on 12 September 2017 at the National Gallery London. The Conference is organised by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Spoliation Advisory Panel and is sponsored by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe.

2. To register an interest in attending the event email internationalconferencelondon2017@culture.gov.uk

3. The Spoliation Advisory Panel was established in 2000 to consider claims from anyone who lost possession of a cultural object during the years 1933 to 1945 and where that object is now in the possession of a UK collection.

4. The Panel advises on what might be an appropriate solution in response to a claim and its advice is published in a report which is also laid before Parliament.  The Panel’s advice is not binding on the parties, though its advice has always been adopted by both parties thus far.  Where it upholds a claim, the Panel may recommend the return of the object or the payment of compensation.

5. Planning for the Conference is being undertaken by a Spoliation Conference Working Group consisting of Clare Pillman (DCMS Director for Culture, Tourism and Sport and Group Chair), Sir Donnell Deeny (Chair of the Spoliation Advisory Panel), Tony Baumgartner (Deputy Chair of the Spoliation Advisory Panel), Anne Webber (Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe), Dr Antonia Boström (Keeper of Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramics & Glass, Victoria and Albert Museum), Mark Caldon (Senior Policy Adviser and Secretary to the Spoliation Advisory Panel), Margaret Passmore (Head of Freedom of Religion or Belief, Post-Holocaust, Human Rights and Democracy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office) and Nathalie Tamam (Chief of Staff, The Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles, UK Post-Holocaust Issues Envoy).

6. The Holocaust Act applies to the boards of trustees of the following 17 national institutions: the Royal Armouries; the British Library; the British Museum; the Imperial War Museums; the National Galleries of Scotland; the National Gallery; the National Library of Scotland; the National Maritime Museum; the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside; the National Museums of Scotland; the National Portrait Gallery; the Natural History Museum; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; the Science Museum; the Tate Gallery; the Victoria and Albert Museum; the Wallace Collection.

Spoliation Advisory Panel

The government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel in 2000 to consider claims from anyone (or from any one or more of their heirs), who lost cultural property during the Nazi era (1933 - 1945), where such an object is now in the possession of a UK public collection. The Panel offers advice to the claimant and the institution on what would be an appropriate form of action to take in response to the claim. The Panel may also advise on a claim for an item in a private collection at the joint request of the claimant and the owner. Although the Panel’s advice is not binding on the parties, its advice has been adopted by institutions. The Panel’s advice is published in the form of an unopposed return to Parliament.

There are 13 Panel members including the two chairs, Sir Donnell Deeny and Sir Alan Moses.

Since its establishment, the Panel has advised on 20 claims and 23 cultural objects have either been returned to families or they have received compensation.

There are no claims currently before the Panel.

Case Studies

Three Meissen figures formerly in the possession of the V&A

In 2014, the Spoliation Advisory Panel considered a claim from the Estate of Emma Budge, for the return of a number of items now in UK museums. Emma Budge was a prominent Jewish art collector born on 17 February 1852 in Hamburg and who died there on 14 February 1937, leaving behind no children. One such claim was for two Meissen porcelain figures in the possession of the V&A.

Emma Budge left a will in which she bequeathed her art collection to her executors and instructed them to distribute it to suitable museums or similar institutions in Germany, the United States of America or other countries, or to sell the remaining art at auctions at their own discretion.  Following Emma’s death in 1937, her heirs were either already abroad or preparing to leave Germany in the face of persecution. The executors sent the art collection in five furniture vans to Berlin for auction. This was conducted by the Aryanised Jewish auction house of Paul Graupe in December 1937. The proceeds were paid into a blocked account and the heirs had no access to it.  The Jewish executors were pushed aside in favour of Emma Budge’s former tax adviser who was not Jewish and was acceptable to the regime. The Spoliation Advisory Panel concluded that this amounted to a forced sale.

In researching the provenance of the two figures in the V&A collection, the Museum’s curators identified one more figure which was sold at the 1937 sale and this was consequently added to the claim.

The recommendation of the Panel was therefore that the V&A should return the Meissen figures to the Estate of Emma Budge, given the circumstances of their loss in Nazi Germany in 1937. The V&A accepted the Panel’s recommendation and the figures were returned to the heirs.

The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 allows 17 national collections in the UK (including the V&A) to return items lost during the Nazi era, where this follows a recommendation by the Spoliation Advisory Panel and Ministers agree.

Silver-gilt renaissance Salt in the possession of the Ashmolean Museum

In another case involving items from the estate of Emma Budge, in 2013, the Spoliation Advisory Panel considered a claim for a silver-gilt renaissance Salt in the possession of the Ashmolean Museum.  The Salt was part of a bequest to the Museum and, shortly after the bequest was made, the Museum informed the Commission for Looted Art of items that the Museum considered had provenance concerns. The recommendation of the Panel was therefore that the Ashmolean Museum should return the Silver-Gilt Renaissance Salt to the Estate of Emma Budge, given the circumstances of their loss in Nazi Germany in 1937. The Ashmolean Museum accepted the Panel’s recommendation and the Salt was returned to the heirs.

Issue date: 21st July 2017

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