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Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment)

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2018

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 from expiring on 11 November 2019.

It was on 10 November 1938 when the horrors of Nazi persecution began in earnest with the shameful episode known as Kristallnacht. Lives were lost during that terrifying “night of broken glass” but a key focus of the violent attacks that took place was property—the homes, buildings and businesses owned by Jewish people. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, property of all kinds was systematically stolen from millions of people as part of Hitler’s horrific genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jewish community. That included many precious works of art. It is estimated that up to 20% of Europe’s cultural treasures were lost during world war two, and around 100,000 cultural objects pillaged during the Nazi era still remain hidden today. The horrific crimes of the Nazis can never be remedied, but there is action that we can take to return works of art to the people from whom they were stolen.

At the end of the last century, there was growing international awareness of the risk that looted art may have been inadvertently acquired by museums and galleries. That led to the 1998 Washington conference on holocaust era assets, where a number of countries, including the UK, pledged that they would work to identify treasures stolen by the Nazis and seek to return them to their rightful owners. Compared with other European countries, it seems that little looted art found its way to the UK, but that should not be an excuse for inaction.

In 2000, the previous Labour Government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel to consider claims from anyone who had lost possession of a cultural object in circumstances relating to the Nazi era. A problem arose in 2002, when the heirs of Dr Arthur Feldman sought the restitution of four old master drawings in the British Museum on the grounds that they had been stolen by the Gestapo from Dr Feldman’s collection in March 1939 in what was then Czechoslovakia. The British Museum wanted to return the objects, but the High Court ruled that it could not lawfully do so. No matter the moral case for giving property back to the heirs of its owner, the museum was under a binding statutory obligation not to give away items in its collection. Several other national institutions were also subject to the same restriction.

That and other similar cases were raised in Parliament in 2009 by Andrew Dismore, who was the MP for Hendon at the time. He brought forward a private Member’s Bill to remove the statutory restrictions on national institutions, such as the British Museum, that prevented them from returning works of art confiscated by the Nazis. With cross-party support, the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill received Royal Assent on 12 November 2009. It provides that the 17 national institutions named in the legislation have the power to return works of art to their rightful owners in cases where that is recommended by the advisory panel and approved by the Culture Secretary.

However, section 4(7) of the 2009 Act contains a 10-year sunset clause, meaning that the Act will cease to have effect after 11 November next year. After that date, the institutions named in the legislation will no longer be able to return works of art to Holocaust survivors or to the families of those who perished in the genocide. The Bill that I am seeking leave to bring in would keep the legislation on the statute book by repealing section 4(7) and thus removing the sunset clause.

Parliament was entirely right in 2009 to give our national museums the power to restore property lost in such terrible circumstances to its rightful owners. The legislation was subject to exacting scrutiny and was significantly amended and clarified during its passage through Parliament. It has worked well during its eight years on the statute book, resolving cases in a fair and balanced way. Take, for example, the 12th century manuscript known as the Beneventan Missal. The advisory panel concluded that the manuscript had been looted during the chaos that followed the Allied bombing of Benevento in 1943, and, with the approval of the Secretary of State, the missal was returned to Italy. In 2015, a John Constable painting from the Tate Gallery was restored to its owner after the panel concluded that it had been stolen when the German army invaded Budapest in 1944.

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. The Act has not had a disruptive impact on our national museums. When the proposal to keep the measure on the statute book was announced in 2017, it was warmly welcomed by the museum community. Today the director of the National Gallery, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, issued the following statement:

“The museum community is committed to fair and just redress in the case of works taken wrongfully during the Holocaust and World War II. It is fully supportive of the proposal to amend the Act by removing the so-called sunset clause.”

The task of identifying and returning objects that have an incomplete history during the relevant period is by no means at an end. As recently as last September, the Government hosted an international conference in London to consider how efforts to identify and give back works of art lost during the holocaust could be accelerated. The UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to resolve those cases in a fair way, and the 2009 Act has played an important part in that. The 2009 legislation had the backing of the last Labour Government, and my proposed Bill has the support of the current Conservative Government. I thank the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for its work, which has included 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.

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. Indeed, the case is arguably stronger than it was in 2009. We have fewer and fewer holocaust survivors still with us. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the survivors who live in my Chipping Barnet constituency. I have had the great honour of meeting many of them during my years as their local MP. I thank them for all that they do to ensure that the current generation hears their testimony at first hand, as part of the efforts we must make as a society to ensure that the horrors of the holocaust are never forgotten.

Surely, it would be heartless and wrong to deprive the last survivors of their right to recover treasured works of art. Nothing can make up for the trauma and suffering of those who experienced the holocaust at first hand, or who lost loved ones in that horror, but at least we can give them back the precious works of art that were stolen from them. That is what my proposal is designed to achieve, and I commend this Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Theresa Villiers, Bob Blackman, Dr Matthew Offord, Stephen Crabb, Ian Austin, Mr Edward Vaizey, David Evennett, John Mann, Andrew Percy, Charlie Elphicke, Mr Iain Duncan Smith and Andrew Rosindell present the Bill.

Theresa Villiers accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed (Bill 182).