A dispute over four Nazi-looted drawings currently in the British Museum is likely to lead to a change in British law to allow art stolen in World War II to be returned to its legal heirs. The Old Masters in question, once part of a large collection belonging to Arthur Feldmann, a Jewish lawyer and a passionate art collector, were confiscated by the Gestapo on the day the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, March 15, 1939.
When descendants of Feldmann and his wife — who both died in the Holocaust — submitted a claim for the artworks in May 2002, the British Museum acknowledged their right of ownership of the drawings it had acquired in 1946.
Museum trustees agreed to return the items, worth around $260,000, declaring that the case represented a “unique moral claim.” But they were prevented from doing so by the British Museum Act of 1963, which effectively bans the institution from dispersing any part of its collection.
The case touches on a particularly delicate subject for Britain: There are fears that a move to return such items could set a precedent affecting disputes over priceless British Museum artifacts such as the Parthenon friezes, known as the Elgin Marbles. Greece long has lobbied for their return; they were removed from the country in 1816.
Seeking a way around this legal barrier, in August 2003 the museum asked Britain’s attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, whether the unique moral circumstances surrounding the Feldmann collection would override the law.
Goldsmith in turn consulted Britain’s High Court, which ruled in May that the attorney general did not have the power to override the act and that the law would have to be changed to allow such an outcome.
“No moral obligation can justify a disposition by the Trustees of an object forming part of the collections of the museum,” said Vice Chancellor Sir Andrew Morritt, who presided over the hearing.
The High Court decided that the issue of the Elgin Marbles is “irrelevant” to the Feldmann case, but it remains highly sensitive.
“It is now beyond doubt,” said a spokesman for the British Museum, “that, when there is a claim for an object in the British Museum collection which can be proved to have been stolen from a Jewish family by the Nazis, the object cannot be returned without the authority of an Act of Parliament.”
The government has agreed to start the process to change the law so that looted art can be returned to its original owners or their heirs.
The administration “entirely accepts it is an important issue and will put things right,” said a spokesman for Britain’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
But that will take time. The earliest a change in the law could be instituted would be November 2006, and campaigners are unhappy at the slow pace with which the issue has progressed.
A committee of the Department of Culture told the government to introduce legislation on restitution five years ago. That call was reiterated in April by the Spoliation Advisory Panel, a body set up in 2000 to mediate disputes concerning Nazi-looted art.
Anne Webber, of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe — a London-based nonprofit founded in 1999 by the European Council of Jewish Communities and the Conference of European Rabbis to oversee all issues relating to Nazi-looted art — which is representing the Feldman heirs, expressed disappointment that restitution still was not available three years after the claim appeared to have been settled.
“The British Museum agreed to the claim within weeks,” she said. “They are very committed and see it as an exceptional moral case.”
Feldmann started his collection, which includes works by Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt, in the early 1900s. It grew to encompass 750 works.
The drawings in the British Museum are “St. Dorothy with the Christ Child” by a follower of Martin Schongauer; “Virgin and Child, Adored by St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John,” by Martin Johann Schmidt; “An Allegory on Poetic Inspiration with Mercury and Apollo,” by Nicholas Blakey; and “The Holy Family,” by Niccolo dell’Abbate.
Feldman was arrested and tortured to death two years after the Nazis entered Czechoslovakia and seized his collection. The following year his wife was deported to Auschwitz, where she died. The couple’s two sons survived the Holocaust, and their children live in Israel.
“Given that Britain has been at the forefront of the effort to research collections and has led the field internationally,” Webber said, “it’s a great shame there hasn’t been similar work to complete that to enable art identified as looted to be restituted.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.