Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (& other restitution news)

March 30 2015

Image of Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (& other restitution news)

Picture: Tate

The Art Newspaper reports that Tate Britain is reconsidering the restitution of the above painting by Constable, after 'new information' came to light. The museum had been ordered to hand the painting back to the heirs of Ferenc Hatvany by the UK government's spoliation panel. The panel also made some rather sharp criticisms of the way Tate had handled the case previously. 

Meanwhile, Charlotte Burns, also in the Art Newspaper reports that an early El Greco portrait is to be restituted - after it was exhibited last year at TEFAF for sale. The portrait above, of an unknown sitter, was in the collection of Julius Priester, who had to flee Austria after the 'anschluss' of 1938.

There's also a new movie about a restitution case, starring Helen Mirren. Woman in Gold charts Maria Altmann's quest to reclaim ownership of Klimt's famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (below). More here about the film in The Guardian

The lawyer who helped Altmann secure the painting - against the fierce resistance of the Austrian government (the picture was in the Belvedere gallery) - was E Randol Schoenberg. He had a nice line in the press about these restituted pictures, calling them 'the last prisoners of World War 2'.

All of which raises the question about how long we should go on restituting pictures, a subject raised by the director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Klaus Albrecht Schröder, who says in The Art Newspaper:

“The international community should decide on a sensible time frame of 20 or 30 years from now [...] If we don’t set a time limit of around 100 years after the end of the Second World War, then we should ask ourselves why claims regarding crimes committed during the First World War should not still be valid; why we don't argue anymore about the consequences of the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war, and why we don't claim restitution of works of art that have been stolen during previous wars?”

All of which is hard to argue against, on a purely logical level. There have been cases where governments have sought the return of works 'looted' centuries ago, such as the ludicrious claim by the French government on a painting by Nicholas Tournier stolen, they said, from a French museum in 1818 (AHN covered the case back in 2011). And cases from WW1 are not unheard of either. 

Personally, I would argue that restitution cases before WW2, or rather, the Nazi's rise to power in 1933, should be consigned to history. The idea of returning works of art, or indeed anything, taken from those post-1933 just because they were Jewish is a strong emotional one. I was involved in a couple of cases (one of which we made into an episode of 'Fake or Fortune?'), and it was satisfying to help put right such an injustice, even after all these years. 

But where should we end? Surely there must be an end point somewhere, even to WW2 restitution claims. Instead of a time limit, however, which is arbitrary and potentially rather unfair, I would favour a generational one. That is to say, we should decide at which point the clear injustice suffered by one generation can be said to have had an impact on subsequent generations. If, today, a living child or grandchild of someone who had their paintings stolen during WW2, came forward and said (for example) 'that's my Klimt', then it is impossible to they should not have it back.

But if the great, great grandchild of a Nazi victim came forward? Would it be easy to say, four generations later, that their life chances were materially affected by not owning the Kilmt, or sharing in its proceeds? Who is to say that their parents or grandparents might not have sold the painting, and spent the money, long before they were born? So I would set a limit of a maximum of three generations since the alleged crime - in other words, if the great-grandchild of the first victim can prove ownership, they should benefit. But for subsequent generations, we should move on.  

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