Tate must return looted Constable

March 26 2014

Image of Tate must return looted Constable

Picture: Tate

This is big news: the UK's Spoliation Advisory Panel has today ruled that Tate Britain must return a painting by Constable to the heirs of a Hungarian art collector, named by Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper as Baron Ferenc Hatvany. The picture, 'Beaching a Boat, Brighton', was deposited in a Budapest bank vault by Hatvany under a different name, and under a different title, when he was fleeing both the Nazi's (he was of Jewish descent) and then later the Soviets. Hatvany eventually died in Switzerland in 1958, but the picture, and the rest of his collection, was looted from the Budapest bank by German or Russian forces.

The Tate opposed the claim, and said, among other arguments, that the picture held no 'personal and emotional significance for the Claimants.' But the Spoliation panel has found against them, and appears to be critical of Tate's lack of research into the picture's provenance, which could have thrown up the looted art link earlier. This excerpt comes from page 12 of the ruling:

The Panel concludes, in the light of the evidence, that the Tate was under a moral obligation to pursue the possibility, that the Painting had been the object of spoliation during the war but notes the Tate’s submissions that its connection with the Collector was overlooked by two selling galleries, the Yale University Press catalogue raisonné of 1984 and by four institutions to which it was later lent.

The Panel also concludes that the Tate could have researched the Painting’s provenance on subsequent occasions as the opportunity arose, particularly after its mention in Mravik’s monograph in the English-language in 1998 (referred to in paragraph 29 above). Even if it is not reasonable of the Claimants to demand that the Tate’s experts should have consulted the catalogues of the Witt Library, there were other sources available that could have established the likelihood that the Painting had been spoliated during the war. It would not have been difficult to have made enquiries of the Hungarian Government, who had included the Painting on its official list of looted art from the late 1940s. 

The panel then criticises Tate for seeming to withold evidence from the heirs which might have advanced their claim:

The Tate is equivocal in its response to the charge that it has withheld information from the Claimants. It argues that full legal disclosure of the kind customary in litigation is “not appropriate in the context of an application to the Panel”. It asserts that it had “provided the Claimants with all the material relating to the specific issues they had raised” but this makes it clear that there is material with which it has not provided them. If the Claimants wished to see it, they should surely have been able to do so. However, in the end, this issue is not of major importance. The documentation available to the Panel is sufficient for it to reach an informed conclusion and make the appropriate recommendation.

The panel then concludes that the painting must be returned:

Taking into account all the above circumstances, the Panel concludes that the moral strength of the Claimants’ case, and the moral obligation on the Tate, warrant a recommendation that Beaching a Boat, Brighton, by John Constable, should be returned by the Tate to the Claimants as they desire, in accordance with the provisions of The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 and subject to the conditions outlined in paragraphs 54 and 55 above. The Panel recommends accordingly. In accordance with its earlier decisions the Panel considers that no reimbursement is due from the Claimants to the Tate for its expenditure as that is broadly balanced by income received and by the benefit that Tate and the public have derived from the work over the last four decades.

I haven't seen the painting in person, but I'd have thought it's worth at least £500,000, and probably much more. You can read the full ruling here

Update: I wrote this story yesterday in a bit of a rush, and so missed this astonishing claim by Tate defending their failure to investigate the provenance earlier:

37.The Witt Library is an image resource and the Tate argues that it would not have occurred to anybody to use it as a research tool for provenance unless, like the Claimants’ representatives, they had already been alerted to the possible Holocaust connection of a particular item.

I can't quite believe anyone at Tate genuinely thinks this. Everybody knows the Witt is the place to go for initial provenance clues. It's usually the first place I look. The photos there invariably have information on previous owners.

Update II: further evidence of how rushed my original report was - I missed this equally astonishing aspect of the case, noticed by the Standard, that Tate tried to claim for years worth of insurance, storage and preservation fees!

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