Tristram Besterman on Arthur Feldmann's drawings

Museums Journal Issue 113/12 2 December 2013

Tristram Besterman on Arthur Feldmann's drawings

A settlement has been reached with Arthur Feldmann’s heirs after one of his drawings was recently discovered in the British Museum’s collections.

From their theft by the Nazis in 1939 to their acquisition by the museum, the tale of the Feldmann drawings and the family’s challenges through the British courts is convoluted and unedifying. The recent discovery of another Feldmann drawing provides the latest twist in a sorry tale.

Two issues spoil the way in which the news of the recent settlement has been spun. First, the drawing entered the museum collection as recently as 1997. No doubt it was accepted as part of a bequest “in good faith”, but what does it say about the museum’s standards of due diligence?

A second cause for embarrassment is that instead of coming to light as a result of curatorial research, the drawing was found following detective work by a family member.

All credit to those who have salvaged as much as possible from the mess: at least the drawing is secured for the public and the family has received compensation. Nonetheless, a more self-critical perspective on the story might ensure that we all learn some important lessons from it.

Above all, some professional humility would not go amiss as we consider the human suffering that will forever taint the drawings. As an institution that champions the values of the European Enlightenment, the British Museum would be the first to acknowledge that it possesses these drawings at a cost far beyond the compensation paid to Feldmann’s descendants.

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