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23rd June 2023

Restitution and Art Law

Restitution and Art Law
Samuel Isaac
Samuel Isaac
Trainee Solicitor

In addition to reflecting the vision of its creator, an artwork is also charged with the stories of those who owned the work. Richard Aronowitz, Global Head of Restitution at Christie's, explained that his profession has often required him to spend more time with the back of an artwork than the front, finding the names of previous owners and drawing a history of the hands through which the object has passed.

At an event we attended at Lauderdale Road Synagogue last week to mark the 25-year anniversary of the 1998 Washington Principles, Aronowitz shared his personal family history during the Holocaust, highlighting the profound importance of the stories behind the artwork he deals with on a daily basis. Every claim relates to a complex history of persecution, inheritance and a hope for justice finally dealt. He provided a fascinating survey of restitution up to the present day, weaving in his own journey to the field.

The issue of artworks and cultural artefacts seized by the Nazis during World War II has, over time, prompted ever-increasing international efforts to facilitate their rightful return. In the UK, legislative roadblocks, such as the British Museum Act 1963 and the National Heritage Act 1983, prevented museums ever ceding works due to claims of looting or restitution. The 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets marked a significant turning point in an otherwise reticent landscape: over the course of the conference, 11 principles were established to address the ways in which artwork and assets looted or sold under duress during the Nazi era could be returned to their rightful owners, and to provide guidance for countries seeking to work towards a more positive, active approach to restitution. The landmark Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 enshrines these principles in UK legislation, by empowering national museums and institutions to transfer items within their collections based on recommendations from the Spoliation Advisory Panel, as approved by the Secretary of State.

The stories behind looted artworks serve as powerful reminders of our collective history. The UK's commitment to restitution is expanding to reflect our changing attitudes to our imperial legacy, with many bodies returning objects taken through the colonial period. Questions of legal title, arbitration and family history lie at the centre of these claims, and at Hunters, with our thriving Art Law department, we are well-equipped to assist clients in these matters, ensuring that justice is pursued and stories are preserved.