A leading art dealer has been criticised for comparing the restitution of art looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust to “ambulance chasing”.
Julian Agnew, former chairman of the Society of London Art Dealers, said the campaign was comparable to lawyers who encourage victims to take litigious action.
In a letter published in the Financial Times he wrote: “Since 1990 and the end of communism in eastern Europe, a whole trade of researchers, aided by lawyers, has grown up which seeks to notify the descendants of Nazi-era owners and put forward restitution claims.
"The basis of the deal with the claimant is that the researchers and lawyers take a very considerable percentage of the sale proceeds of restituted items... this is not an attractive side of the art market, being comparatively close to ambulance chasing.”
But Karen Pollock, Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive, said: “This comparison is simply wrong. Both the possessions and the lives of an entire generation were stolen during the Holocaust and the symbolic importance of returning assets wrongfully taken by the Nazis should not be under-estimated.”
Anne Webber, Commission for Looted Art in Europe co-chair, said: “If the art market had been less willing to sell looted art since 1933 and profit commercially from it, much of it would have gone back to its rightful owners decades ago.
“That is part of the reason so many claims remain outstanding 70 years after the end of the war. Many dealers across the art world continue to sell looted works to innocent purchasers.”
Mr Agnew also suggested that no one should be able to make a claim after 2018.
David Glasser, chairman of the Ben Uri Gallery in St John’s Wood, said: “Given 1933-45 is internationally recognised as a period of criminality it seems at best an illogical and at worst a punitive proposition.”
Mr Agnew’s comments were published in response to an FT article by David Baddiel.
Mr Baddiel, who made a BBC documentary on Holocaust restitution in 2007, said: “It is difficult, as a Jew, to ask for your money back.
“Even if it is rightfully yours — even if it was stolen, with intense violence, from your immediate ancestors — there’s always a troubling sense that you’re falling into some sort of cash-grabbing stereotype. And, perhaps more importantly, at some level soiling the purpose of restitution, which is justice.”