On 10 November 1938, the horrors of Nazi persecution began in earnest with a shameful episode known as “Kristallnacht”. While lives were lost, a key focus of the attacks during that that terrifying ‘night of broken glass’ was property – the homes and businesses owned by Jewish people.
In the 1930s and 40s, property of all kinds was systematically stolen from millions of people as part of Hitler’s horrific genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jewish community. That includes many precious works of art. It is estimated that around 100,000 cultural objects pillaged during the Nazi era are still hidden today.
The crimes of the Nazis can never be remedied, but there are steps we can take to return works of art to the people from whom they were stolen, or to their family.
At the end of the last century, growing international awareness of the risk that looted works of art may have been inadvertently acquired by museums and galleries led to the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets.
Compared with other European countries, it seems that very little looted art found its way to the UK. But that should not be an excuse for inaction. In 2000, the Government established a panel to consider claims from anyone who had lost possession of a cultural object in circumstances relating to the Nazi era.
A key problem arose in 2002 when the heirs of Dr Arthur Feldman sought the restitution of four old master drawings in the British Museum on the grounds that they had been stolen by the Gestapo from Dr Feldman’s collection in March 1939 in what was then Czechoslovakia.
The British Museum wanted to return the objects but the High Court ruled that it could not lawfully do so. No matter what the moral case for giving the property back to the heirs of its owner, the museum was under a binding statutory obligation not to give away items in its collection. A number of other national institutions were also subject to the same restriction.
This and other similar cases were cited in 2009 by Andrew Dismore (MP for Hendon at the time), when he brought forward a Private Members’ Bill to remove the statutory restrictions on national institutions, such as the British Museum, which prevented them from returning works of art confiscated by the Nazis. With cross-party support, the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill, received Royal Assent in November 2009.
But the Act includes a sunset clause which means that it will cease to have effect after 11 November next year, after which point the institutions named in the legislation will no longer be able to return works of art lost during the Nazi era. The Ten Minute Rule Bill I am introducing to Parliament will put that right by removing the sunset clause and keeping the legislation on the statute book.
In my view, Parliament was right in 2009 to give our national museums the power to restore property lost in these terrible circumstances to its rightful owners. The moral case for this legislation remains as strong today as it was ten years ago. The task of identifying and returning such objects is not complete. Potential claimants may still be unaware of the location of artworks owned by relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
Although nothing can make-up for the trauma and suffering of those who survived the Holocaust, or who lost loved ones in that horror, at least we can give them back the precious works of art which were stolen from them. That is what my Bill is designed to achieve.
Theresa Villiers is Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet. Her Ten Minute Rule Motion is on Tuesday 13 March.