Process for checking spoliated objects "deeply flawed"

Museums Journal 27 November 2013
By Patrick Steel

Former member of Spoliation Advisory Committee speaks out

A former member of the disbanded Spoliation Advisory Committee has called for the committee to be reconstituted with a strengthened remit to establish the provenance of spoliated items in UK museum collections.

David Cesarani, research chair in history at the Royal Holloway University of London, described the checking process of the committee, of which he was a member, as "deeply flawed".

The committee was established by the National Museum Directors' Council (NMDC) in 1999 and disbanded in 2008.

Ceserani told Museums Journal: “The NMDC set up a committee, chaired by Lord Neuberger, to encourage and oversee provenance checks of items accessioned after 1933 by its member organisations as well as non-national museums and galleries.

"The members of the committee, of which I was one, were led to believe that it was a thorough exercise.

“However, it has recently become apparent that nearly 120 items are subject to contest as well as a significant number of other cases which have been settled by the Spoliation Advisory Panel. This is a very disappointing reflection on the work that was carried out and must engender a suspicion that it was hardly exhaustive or rigorous."

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe has called for a progress report on research into the provenance of works in UK museum collections.

“For the above reasons I would whole-heartedly support the recommendation of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe," said Ceserani.

He also criticised a lack of cooperation from art dealers and auctioneers with the committee: “I would add that one stumbling block in the way of the checks on provenance was the attitude of art dealers and auction houses.

"If I recall correctly they steadfastly refused to open their books to inspection. As a result it was often impossible to be sure where an item came from before it was purchased or donated and accessioned by a gallery or museum, even though the dealer was known.

“There is an urgent need to reconstitute the original committee, but to strengthen its remit. There is no point rerunning the same exercise since it is clear that it was deeply flawed. In particular, something needs to be done about the extremely disappointing behaviour of art dealers and auction houses.”

  • A news analysis on spoliation will be in the next issue of Museums Journal
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