Former Royal Academy secretary speaks out against returning stolen works
Writing in The Art Newspaper, Sir Norman said it was time to put an end to restitution and allow museums to keep hold of plundered artwork. He suggested it was better for such treasures to stay in public collections rather than return to the descendants of owners, many who have long since died. Sir Norman said the Washington Declaration of 1998 which committed 44 countries to search for plundered Nazi art and return it to its owners needed to be revisited.
"This process [of research and restitution] has been ongoing for 10 years and the items in question have often been claimed by people distanced by two or more generations from their original owners," he said. "I believe history is history and that you can't turn the clock back or make things good again through art. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result, arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world.
"Of course, what happened in the Nazi period was unspeakable in its awfulness. I lost many relatives whom I never knew personally, and who died in concentration camps in the most horrible of circumstances. But I believe grandchildren or distant relations of people who had works of art or property taken by the Nazis do not now have an inalienable right to ownership, at the beginning of the 21st century."
But Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate Galleries and chair of the National Museum Director's Conference, a working group examining the spoliation of art during the Second World War, said: "Spoliation has been under intensive discussion only for the past 10 years, since the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998. I think it would be premature to impose a moratorium now but at some point in the future this may be appropriate."
A statement by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which created an independent spoliation advisory panel in 2000, said: "We believe that, where a work of art can be proved to have been looted in the Nazi era, the wishes of the heirs of the original owners should be respected and, where possible, the work returned or appropriate amends made. This is a simple, right and fair way of righting historic wrongs, and we have no plans to resile on our commitment."
Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said Sir Norman was "out of touch", and added: "It is illegal to steal or to loot and this rule of law is fundamental to a free society. In what Norman Rosenthal writes, he seeks to reach a new understanding of what is right and wrong."
Click here to read Sir Norman Rosenthal's article.