Theresa Villiers speaking in the Commons as she tabled an proposed legislation on the issue of returning Nazi-looted art
Depriving Holocaust survivors of their right to recover artwork looted in the Nazi era would be “heartless and wrong”, a former Cabinet minister has said, as she introduced legislation to stop the current law expiring.
Conservative Theresa Villiers said legislation giving a number of museums and galleries the power to return works of art stolen during the Second World War back to their rightful owners will cease to have effect from November next year.
“After that date, the institutions named in the legislation will no longer be able to return works of art to Holocaust survivors or to the families of those who perished in the genocide,” Ms Villiers told the Commons.
She warned that potential claimants may still be unaware of the location of artworks owned by their relatives who died in the Holocaust, and said the moral case for the law is as strong now as when the Act was introduced in 2009.
Her Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill, introduced via a 10-minute rule motion, seeks to repeal the sunset clause in the 2009 Act to keep the legislation on the statute book.
Ms Villiers said the museum community was “fully supportive” of the proposals and she also had the backing of the Government.
“Throughout 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 included many precious works of art,” she said.
“It is estimated that up to 20% of Europe’s cultural treasures were lost during World War Two.
“Around 100,000 cultural objects pillaged during the Nazi era remain still hidden to this day.”
Ms Villiers said the moral case for the legislation was “arguably stronger than it was in 2009: we have fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors still with us”.
“Surely it would be heartless and wrong to deprive those last survivors of their right to recover treasured works of art.
“Nothing can make up for the trauma and suffering of those who experienced the Holocaust at first hand, or who lost loved ones in that horror, but at least we can give them back the precious works of art which were stolen from them.”
The Bill was given a second reading on April 27 but, despite Government support, it has many hurdles to clear as it bids to become law.