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Saturday, 26 June, 1999, 08:07 GMT 09:07 UK
Brushing out the taint of looted art
Last year Britain's national museums and galleries set out to discover whether they owned any works of art once looted by the Nazis from their original Jewish owners during World War II. But, as the BBC's Arts Correspondent Nick Higham found out, it seems they have opened a Pandora's Box they cannot close.
At the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool they have everything from medieval religious masterpieces to cutting edge modern art.
You might think a place like this would know exactly where everything in its collection had come from - but you'd be wrong.
Julian Treuherz, himself the son of German Jewish refugees, is the Walker's keeper.
He shows me a Cezanne whose origins are uncertain.
"We know in 1918 it belonged to a collector in Berlin whose name might be Jewish or might not be," he says. "And then we know that in 1964 we bought it from a dealer and we know very little about what happened to it in between then."
The Walker has identified nine works acquired since World War II whose whereabouts during the Nazi era - between 1933 and 1945 - are unknown.
One painting was simply found in the gallery in 1958. Others passed through the hands of dealers known to have sold artworks looted by the Nazis, among them a Monet.
The next step for the Walker, like other museums and galleries, is to publicise the doubtful works and see if someone comes forward to claim them. But it's not at all clear what happens if they do.
Mr Treuherz believes that because the collection belongs to the nation, the government would have to introduce an Act of Parliament for any restitution to be made.
The alternative to handing back the paintings would be to pay compensation, but the Walker, said Mr Treuherz, simply cannot afford to do that.
Demand for proof
At the National Gallery in London they have more than 100 works which might possibly have been looted by the Nazis.
Neil McGregor, the gallery's director, agrees that if anyone claims them the government will have to get involved.
That's partly because, under English law, museums and galleries are now the rightful owners of the works - they have what lawyers call "good title".
"Should somebody be able to prove that the title given to a national museum was wrong in law then there's no real problem," says Mr McGregor.
"This has happened in the past when an object has been acquired by a national museum which turned out to have been stolen and it has been given back.
"What is more difficult is when the proof cannot be shown to meet the legal standards. It's very important to understand that the trustees are not free agents in this area."
Museums and collectors 'self-righteous'
Satisfying a court that you're the rightful owner of a looted picture isn't easy, when many of the possible witnesses are dead and the documents destroyed.
Nick Goodman's Dutch grandparents died in the Holocaust and their collection of more than 40 paintings was looted.
So far, with his brother and his aunt, he's tracked down three of them - a Renoir, a Degas and a Botticelli. But recovering them hasn't proved straightforward.
"Whoever has the painting now was not responsible for the theft. So there is some feeling of self-righteousness with a museum or a private collector," he says.
The Goodmans have also spent a small fortune in legal costs - more, in some cases, than the value of the paintings. The answer, say some, is to keep the courts out of it.
Sarah Jackson is the expert on Holocaust art at the Art Loss Register, which traces missing objects for owners and insurance companies.
Museums and galleries with works they think may have been looted can check to see if they're on the register's list.
Her answer to the problem is an international panel to decide what should happen to disputed works.
Others would prefer a purely British solution - perhaps a new tribunal to adjudicate between the conflicting claims of original owners and museum trustees: much cheaper and much faster than going to court.
Either way, Sarah Jackson says, it will be messy.
"I don't think the resolution is going to be simple at all," she says.
"But the fact remains that the spotlight is on these museums to do something about the problem. The problem is not going to go away and there is, I believe, a moral responsiblity for these museums to cleanse their collections."
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