LONDON (Dec. 5)
The Burrell Collection of Art in Scotland is a national treasure that encompasses important collections of medieval painting, stained glass, European art and modern sculpture. But one of its more minor artefacts is at the center of a legal dispute after a government commission ruled that the 18th-century oil painting was Nazi loot that should be returned to its rightful heirs.
The case marks the first time the British government has ordered the restitution of plundered art. Lord Greville Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said he was “delighted” by the decision.
“It is worthy, honorable and should be copied by all others who have such goods in their possession,” Janner said.
The still-life painting, Le Pate de Jambon, once attributed to the French artist Chardin, was acquired by art collector Sir William Burrell from one of Munich’s major art dealing companies for about $1,250 in June 1936. Burrell, a Scottish shipping magnate, had no idea of the item’s provenance.
Three of the firm’s main shareholders, all Jews, had fled Germany, leaving two other Jewish owners in charge. They were presented with an extortionate tax demand designed to force them into a liquidation sale.
Descendants of the five shareholders, who live in Germany and the United States, put in a request for restitution two years ago.
“It is important that questions of ownership arising from the terrible events of the Nazi era are resolved,” Arts Minister Estelle Morris said. “The British public would be unhappy to know that a museum in this country contained a work which had been identified as being wrongfully separated from its rightful owners, and nothing had been done to right that wrong.
“We can all take pride that the U.K. has a proud record in fighting fascism and offering assistance to those people who fled from the horrors of Nazi Germany during the Second World War,” she added.
The Spoliation Advisory Panel, set up in February 2000 to resolve claims on cultural items lost during the Nazi era and now in U.K. collections, has recommended that the Glasgow City Council return the work to the anonymous claimants.
Had the painting been by Chardin, it would now be worth nearly $200,000. Since it has been reassessed as not a work of the French master, its value is closer to $20,000.
But money is not the issue in the case. A spokesman said the city council always had “been very open” to requests to return sensitive items in its possession, pointing to previous instances including the transfer of human remains back to the Maori community in New Zealand.
He added that the Burrell collection will have to seek legal advice, since the terms of the legacy state that no part of the body of work may be disposed of.
“Because of the need for further investigation into the restrictions placed upon the Council by the terms of the Burrell bequest,” the matter will take time to resolve, the council spokesman said.
In the meantime, the painting has been taken out of the public gallery and put in storage.
Only one other case ever has come up before the Spoliation Panel, and it was resolved through compensation rather than restitution. In 2001, the government paid some $243,000 to the heirs of a Jewish family forced to sell a Dutch masterpiece when it fled Germany.
The work by Jan Griffier, a view of the English palace of Hampton Court in Richmond, had been in London’s Tate gallery for the past 40 years.