British Museum Can't Return Looted Works, Court Says

Bloomberg, 27 May 2005
May 27 (Bloomberg) -- The British Museum, which holds antiquities including the Rosetta Stone and sculptures from Athens' Parthenon, is barred from returning art looted by the Nazis to the heirs of a Jewish collector, a London court ruled.

The museum can't override a law blocking it from disposing of pieces in its collection, the U.K. High Court said today. Peter Goldsmith, Britain's Attorney General, had asked the court to determine whether the institute's trustees could be permitted to return four drawings it suspects were stolen from Czech doctor Arthur Feldmann in 1939 on the grounds of ``moral obligation.''

``No moral obligation can justify a disposition by the Trustees of an object forming part of the collections of the museum,'' Justice Andrew Morritt said in the judgment. Feldmann, whose collection was seized from his home when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, later died in a Nazi prison.

Museums worldwide are facing growing pressure to return art works to their original owners. Greece has repeatedly asked to reclaim the Parthenon sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles after the U.K. ambassador who removed them, from the British Museum. In Egypt, authorities have called for Berlin's Egyptian Museum to return a 3,000-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti.
Old Masters.

Lawyers representing Lord Goldsmith earlier this week said allowing the museum, which has more than 5 million visitors annually, to return the four Old Master drawings to Feldmann's descendants could pave the way for claims on other works.

The British Museum said in a statement after the ruling that the drawings presented ``a unique moral claim,'' which it had wished to meet.

``It is now beyond doubt that, when there is a claim for an object in the British Museum collection which can be proved to have been stolen from a Jewish family by the Nazis, the object cannot be returned without the authority of an Act of Parliament,'' it said in the statement.

The institute said it will now refer the claim to the U.K. Department for Culture, Media & Sport's Spoliation Advisory Panel and seek its advice as to the most appropriate action to take in response.


The panel was set up in February 2000 to help resolve claims from people or their heirs who lost cultural objects during the Nazi era that are now held by British collections.

The Feldmann drawings, estimated to be worth around 150,000 pounds ($274,000), are ``St. Dorothy with the Christ Child'' by a follower of Martin Schongauer; ``Virgin and infant Christ, adored by St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John,'' by Martin Johann Schmidt; ``An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo'' by Nicholas Blakey; and ``The Holy Family'' by Niccolo dell'Abbate.

The British Museum bought the drawings in good faith in the late 1940s, without knowing their origin, according to the judgment. It's barred by the British Museum Act 1963 from disposing of any works in its collection, unless they are duplicates or found to be ``useless.''

Justice Morritt today said that only new legislation or a ``bona fide compromise'' on the descendants' claim to the drawings would allow the trustees to legally transfer the works.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which has represented the Feldmann family on its case, said in a statement that it ``regretted'' the ruling and would continue to push for new laws permitting the drawings to be returned.

The British Museum said in its statement that its trustees ``do not accept'' that there is a moral claim to any objects in its collection other than the Feldmann drawings.

The case is HC04CO3885 Her Majesty's Attorney General v The Trustees of the British Museum.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan Murphy in London at . · 76 Gloucester Place · London WIU 6HJ · +44 (0)20 7487 3401
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