A time limit to restitution?

November 28 2012

I'm intrigued to see a report in The Art Newspaper about a conference on Nazi looted art, one which discusses whether there should be a time limit on claims:

A one-day symposium focusing on new developments in Nazi-looted art disputes takes place today 27 November at the Peace Palace in the Hague (“Fair and just solutions? Alternatives to litigation in Nazi looted art disputes: status quo and new developments”).

Issues to be discussed include whether a “fair and just” solution depends on acquiring disputed works in good faith and if a time limit should apply to ownership claims. “Another, rather basic, question is in what sense Nazi-looted art claims differ from other claims regarding spoliated art. If there is a fundamental difference, what is its essence?” says a press statement. 

The debate will include an interview session with the chairs of five European advisory committees (Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK).

Regular readers will know that I am very much in favour of restituting looted art from World War Two, and have criticised decisions which seem to me to be unfair to the heirs of Nazi victims. But I have wondered for some time whether we need to impose a time limit on restitution, even if it is some way in the distance. There are signs that the restitution business is getting out of control: we've recently had a case of looted art from World War One, while last year a London dealer exhibiting in Paris had a work confiscated because it had allegedly been missing from a French museum since 1818!

Obviously, it is way too soon to set limits for WW2 - in many cases victims are still alive, and it would be entirely wrong to discuss any limit that impacted on them or indeed their immediate heirs. Perhaps we need a solution that doesn't necessarily set just a time limit, but a generational one. For example, should we say that spoliated art can only be re-claimed by two, three or four generations of heirs? That is, would it be reasonable to ask how long, even if no spoliation had taken place, a family is likely to have kept its paintings in the first place?

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