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Britain to investigate origins of art acquired since Nazi era

LONDON, March 2 (JTA) — The London-based Holocaust Educational Trust is welcoming the decision of British public art galleries and museums to investigate the origin of all paintings they have acquired since the Nazis came to power in 1933. The prestigious National Gallery on Monday announced that it was investigating the origin of all paintings to determine whether any had been looted by the Nazis. The British government has now ordered all public galleries and museums in Britain, including the British Museum, the Tate Gallery and smaller regional institutions, to investigate the provenance of works in their collections. Holocaust Educational Trust chairman Lord Janner of Braunstone, said that the “swift attempt to investigate paintings in British galleries” will be “an example to museums around the world.” The National Gallery, a popular tourist destination overlooking London’s Trafalgar Square, has 2,400 paintings in its collection, of which 470 were acquired since 1933. Gallery director Neil MacGregor said there are question marks about the origin of 120 of its paintings, which include priceless works by Velazquez, Van Dyck, Tiepolo, Giordano, Caravaggio, Degas, Renoir and Picasso. Of these, the gallery admits that at least 10 paintings — including works by Delacroix, Courbet, Pissarro and a Monet acquired just two years ago — are giving rise to particular concern. These paintings, said MacGregor, appear to have been in unknown collections in Europe during the 1930s. However, he pointed out that even if paintings are found to have been looted by the Nazis they cannot be returned to their lawful owners. “In law we can’t transfer title,” he said, “but the individual might want compensation.” The gallery had embarked on the exercise, he said, “so that anyone who might have a claim can see what is in the National Gallery.” He said no claim had been made and no evidence had emerged that “any previous owner of any painting was unlawfully deprived of it.” But he believed galleries owed it to Holocaust victims to establish beyond doubt the origin of works they acquired since the ’30s, even though he doubted that many works in British public collections would become the subject of dispute. The National Museum Directors’ Conference, which represents 26 national cultural institutions, pledged Monday that “prompt attention and serious consideration” would be given to ownership claims.

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