London's prestigious Tate Gallery has been told it must return an oil painting to a Hungarian family because it was looted by the Nazis. The seascape, entitled Beaching a Boat, was donated by a private collector in 1986. The government panel that investigates such claims says the gallery should have known sooner that its provenance was dubious. We spoke to Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe.
In a statement to VoR, the Tate said it was pleased to follow the conclusions of the report by the spoliation panel. The Tate will be recommending to its trustees that the Constable be returned to the claimants.
The work originally belonged to the Budapest aristocrat, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, whose heirs made a formal claim to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport last year.
Anne Webber told VoR that it can be difficult to track down such paintings, "but what is specific about this painting is that it was recorded by the Hungarians after the war as having been looted from them. It was also on our database, which is online and freely accessible, and has been there since 2001 as a looted painting, with an image, and the pre-war provenance, which is identical to the Tate's provenance, so it wouldn't have taken too long to find it."
Britain and 43 other countries committed in 1998 to check all works in public collections for gaps in provenance between 1933 and 1945, and to publish them, she explains.
So, the Tate has conducted research, says Webber, adding that what's notable about this painting is that although they knew there was a question mark over its provenance, they didn't publish it in the online searchable database containing thousands of works in British collections whose provenance is unclear for that period.
"The Tate led the initiative to do this work in Britain, and some 60 museums have done it, so it's even more surprising that the Tate didn't include this work," she sys.
It is very embarrassing for the Tate, she agrees, because Britain has led the way in such identification and recovery programmes, itself led by the Tate. It's also extremely embarrassing because the spoliation panel has never criticised an institution as severely as it criticises the Tate in this report, she told us.
One of the claims the Tate made was that the painting probably didn't belong in the collection from which it was looted, because that consisted of some 700 works which were mainly Impressionist. However, it had itself described the work as a precursor of Impressionism, so one of the panel's criticisms concerned that.
We asked her if it's possible to quantify how many works of art looted by the Nazis might be left to be found.
"At the Commission we represent scores of families all over the world, and some collections had 600-700 paintings, some much fewer. But there is a consistent figure of 90 percent of those works which cannot be found.
The German culture minister has said in the recent past that there are thousands and thousands of looted works in German museums which have not yet been disclosed. Of course Germany is a particular case, but there are countries which, having not done the research we talked about, may have paintings yet to disclose."
(To hear the podcast of the interview, click on the link below.)