The government has been criticised for its failure to introduce legislation to allow national museums to give back works of art looted during the Nazi era.
This follows last month’s Spoliation Advisory Panel ruling that two pieces of fine porcelain in the collections of the British Museum (BM) and the Fitzwilliam Museum were looted by the Nazis. Both are claimed by Bertha Gutmann, the sole heir of Heinrich Rothberger, whose art collection was seized by the Gestapo in 1938.
But only the Fitzwilliam can return its piece, as current legislation prevents national museums from giving back items. Instead, the government will make an ex-gratia payment of £18,000 to Gutmann in the BM case.
Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said the latest case showed the “total inconsistency” of current legislation. “If your item turns up at the British Museum, you can’t get it back, but if it is in the Fitzwilliam, you can,” she said. “The Spoliation committee is being undermined, as one of the main recommendations it wants to make, to return items, can’t be implemented.”
Webber urged the government to introduce legislation as soon as possible to put the UK in line with other countries. “Britain’s reputation abroad is being damaged by this,” she added. “We know that there are looted works in British museums and galleries. What happens when claims are made and people want them back?”
Culture minister Margaret Hodge acknowledged that the case “illustrates the paradox in the present system, where historic legislation prevents a consistent approach from all museums in responding to claims”. She added that it was something the government would want to consider, but gave no indication of when.
The Spoliation Advisory Panel recommended a change in the law in 2005, after ruling that a 12th-century manuscript at the British Library had been looted by the Nazis from Benevento, in Italy. The panel said the object should be loaned to Benevento while the law was being changed.
But the panel’s report on the British Museum/Fitzwilliam case said new legislation was “not likely in the near future”.
Three of the eight claims heard by the Spoliation Advisory Panel since it was set up in 2000 have been rejected.
At a glance
Bertha Gutmann, the claimant against the British Museum and Fitzwilliam Museum, lives in the US. She is the niece of Heinrich Rothberger, whose art collection was seized by the Gestapo in 1938. Heinrich was one of the eight children of Jacob Rothberger (Bertha Gutmann’s grandfather), who founded a department store in Vienna, Austria, in 1886. The firm was run by Heinrich and his brothers, but in 1938, following the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi Germany, the firm was “aryanised” and Heinrich’s collection was seized by the Gestapo and dispersed. Heinrich fled with his wife, via Cuba, to Canada, where he died in 1953