Sunday, April 26, 2009

Holocaust Restitution Bill Up for Consideration in UK Parliament

The Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill, introduced in January by Andrew Dismore MP, will have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on May 15.  The impetus for the bill was a 2005 recommendation by the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel to restitute the Benevento Missal to Benevento Cathedral in Italy.  The missal, a 12th century manuscript, was acquired by a British citizen in 1944 from an Italian bookseller and made its way to the British Museum Library in the late 1940s.  In light of the legal restrictions on deaccessioning publicly held works – in the case of the missal, a law prohibiting the British Library from deaccessioning manuscripts received from the British Museum - the Panel proposed the creation of a new law authorizing the British Library and the British Museum to restitute Nazi-era spoliated works. 

Currently, British national museums are legally constrained from deaccessioning items in their collections that are claimed for restitution and the only form of relief available to claimants is monetary compensation.  Deaccessions are further subject to individual museum policies that prefer the transfer of objects to institutions within the public domain over private organizations or individuals.  The full text of the Restitution Bill is not yet available, but its official summary indicates that it aims to “provide for the transfer from public museum and gallery collections of arts, artefacts and other objects stolen between 1933 and 1945 by or on behalf of the Nazi regime, its members and sympathizers” and “provide for the return of such artefacts and objects to the lawful owners, their heirs and successors.”  This would clear a path not only for the return of the objects themselves, but also for the return of objects to private entities who are deemed the true owners of looted objects held in British public institutions.

An earlier attempt to loosen the restrictions on restituting Holocaust-era spoliated works through amendments to the draft Heritage Protection Bill failed when that bill was dropped in late 2008.  (The Heritage Protection Bill would also have enabled the U.K. to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.)  As the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Bill progresses through Parliament, updates on its status can be obtained at