Museums lack resources to research provenance

The Financial Times 1 August 2015
Letter from David Lewis, Co-Chair, Commission for Looted Art in Europe

Sir, The provenance research conducted and published in 1999 by the National Gallery in London, in response to the 1998 Washington Principles, is an admirable example to others, as stated by Humphrey Wine in his 
letter. By good fortune Nazi Germany did not invade Great Britain so there are far fewer actual and probable looted objects in this country than there are in Europe. There are, however, looted objects in this country as a result of their having been freely traded on the international art market since 1933 without dealers having checked or provided information on provenance.

Such works are found all over the world today, from Japan to America, and continue to be traded, without the art trade ensuring that thorough provenance research has been conducted, hence the continuing possibility of innocent purchasers acquiring looted works of art.

Despite the example set by the National Gallery, many public museums across Europe, some justifiably, plead lack of resources as the reason for not having undertaken research into the provenance of their collections. As 17 years have elapsed since 44 governments committed their museums to this work at Washington, this is a highly unsatisfactory position. The sooner such research is conducted and finalised the nearer might be the time when the process may come to an end. It is also important to state the fact that a large number of looted objects may never be claimed because tragically there is no one left to actually claim. That should not devalue the efforts to return objects where there are survivors and their descendants.

David Lewis
Commission for Looted Art in Europe

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