National museums back repeal of sunset clause for Nazi loot claims

Museums Association 28 March 2018
By Geraldine Kendall Adams

Amendment will remove cut-off date for return of cultural objects 

The National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) is backing an amendment to end the cut-off date for Holocaust-era restitution claims to the UK’s national museums and galleries.

Proposed by the Conservative MP Theresa Villiers earlier this month, the amendment seeks to remove a sunset clause in the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 that would cause the legislation to expire on 11 November 2019. If that happened, the 17 national institutions named in the act would no longer be able to return spoliated items to Holocaust survivors and their families without violating statutory restrictions on deaccessioning. 

Presenting the bill to the House of Commons, Villiers said: “There may still be potential claimants who are unaware of the location of artworks owned by relatives who died in the Holocaust, so the moral case for this legislation remains as strong today as it was eight years ago.”

A spokeswoman for the NMDC said its members welcomed the proposed amendment. In a statement read to the commons by Villiers, Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery and chair of NMDC’s spoliation working group, said: “The museum community is committed to fair and just redress in the case of works taken wrongfully during the Holocaust and world war two. It is fully supportive of the proposal to amend the act by removing the so-called sunset clause.”

Villiers told the commons that the 2009 act had not had “a disruptive impact on our national museums”.

She said: “The 2009 act is a carefully targeted measure that applies to a defined and limited period and set of circumstances, so it does not open the door for more contentious claims relating to objects brought to the UK in past centuries and under different circumstances.”

Villiers said that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport had been engaging with the Scottish government “with a view to securing their support to reflect the fact that Scottish institutions are included in the list in the legislation”.  

The bill is expected to pass unchallenged through parliament. It will have a second reading at the end of April.

The 2009 legislation has enabled the restitution of a small number of Nazi-looted objects from national collections since it hit the statute books. In 2014, the Victoria and Albert Museum returned three porcelain Meissen figurines to the heirs of the Jewish art collector Emma Budge, whose collection was seized and sold off by the Nazi party following her death in 1937.

And in 2015 the Tate restored a John Constable painting, Beaching a Boat, Brighton (1824), to its original owner after the Spoliation Advisory Panel found it had been looted during the German invasion of Budapest in 1944.
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