Team probing 'Nazi loot' in museum quits

The Times 13 February 2005
John Burns

A TEAM appointed to investigate allegations that Nazi loot may be on display at the Hunt Museum in Limerick has resigned after a dispute over how the inquiry should be financed.

Donal Barrington, a retired Supreme Court judge, and two experts submitted their resignations to the museum last month. They felt their investigation would not be seen to be independent if it was funded by the museum. The Irish government has refused to finance the inquiry.

“It was very important that a proper investigation be done, but the only people who would fund it were the Hunt Museum,” said Barrington. “We could not be seen as being independent in that situation. There was no other source of finance, and we had no resources, so we resigned.

“It’s a very important investigation, and we needed skilled professionals, but we had no means of paying anybody. There was talk of the Royal Irish Academy funding our work but that arrangement has gone.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Paris, which demanded the investigation over a year ago, yesterday accused the Irish authorities of a “betrayal”. The centre wrote to President Mary McAleese in December 2003 accusing the Hunts of having Nazi connections, and urging that artefacts in the museum be displayed on the internet so that Holocaust survivors could scrutinise them.

“I congratulate Justice Barrington and his two colleagues for showing integrity to their responsibilities by resigning,” said Shimon Samuels, the centre’s director for international liaison.

“I see this as a cover-up and a betrayal of a national commitment. I repeat my request that the Irish Museum of the year award given to the Hunt in 2003 be removed.”

Samuels is against an investigation led by the Royal Irish Academy because he says there is an overlap between its board and the Hunt’s. The academy has been in discussion with the museum about organising a fresh, independent inquiry and a decision is expected to be announced within a few weeks.

John Hunt and his German-born wife Gertrude, whose art collection was donated to the state by their children, are alleged to have had extensive Nazi connections before the second world war.

The Wiesenthal centre says they fled London in 1940 for neutral Ireland because MI5 was investigating their pro-Nazi spying activity.

The anti-Nazi centre has not made any specific allegations about objects on display in Limerick, but Samuels said it planned to do so soon.

“The Hunts had direct connections with looted art dealers,” he said. “We have research about individual pieces and it won’t take long before we go public on that.

“We are holding back. If the Barrington commission had investigated the items we are concerned about, we would have been satisfied. Our researcher is Irish, but we are not going into details at the moment.”

Erin Gibbons, an archeologist, has also raised concerns about the Hunt collection, and accused the Hunts of involvement in the “illegal dispersion of the famous Pitt Rivers collection”, and the “illegal export of the Emly shrine from Ireland to the Boston museum”. But she has not made specific allegations about any artefacts either.

The Hunt collection is comprised of more than 2,000 works of art and antiquities, the oldest pieces being from the Neolithic period, which were gathered by the Hunts throughout their lifetimes.

Virginia Teehan, the museum’s director, said the resignation of the Barrington commission did not mean the inquiry had been discontinued. “Justice Barrington and the commission felt strongly that his process must be objective and independent, and should report to an agency other than the museum. We agree with that,” she said. “Achieving transparency and international best practice has required discussion with various individuals and agencies.

Those discussions are ongoing, but we hope to conclude them in a month.”

Teehan said progress had been made in establishing a new inquiry and in finding funding. Public money would be involved. The Hunt director said some thought that they would be justified in not examining the Wiesenthal allegations because they were not specific, but best practice demanded that claims about the provenance of artefacts had to be researched.

Michael Ryan, the president of the Royal Irish Academy, confirmed that the institute was helping to set up a new inquiry. “We have had discussions with all the stakeholders and looked at it internally,” he said. “We think we can assist in having the museum’s artefacts properly evaluated and having the process made public.”

The academy was asked to assist by the department of the arts, which provides funding to the Hunt Museum but does not want to supervise the inquiry.

John O’Donoghue’s department had no comment.
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