The time has come for a statute of limitations on restitution: stemming the flow of works from museums

Since the late 1990s there has been a strong push towards provenance research of collections and museums, and restitution of items that were looted or taken by the Nazis during their period of power


This process has been ongoing for ten years, and the items in question have often been claimed by people distanced by two or more generations from their original owners.

I have, perhaps, an idiosyncratic, non-politically-correct view that many people will disagree with, but I believe history is history and that you can’t turn the clock back, or make things good again through art.

History has always looked after works of art in strange ways. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, because of its value, art has been looted and as a result arbitrarily distributed and disseminated throughout the world. Of course, what happened in the Nazi period was unspeakable in its awfulness. I lost many relatives, whom I never knew personally, and who died in concentration camps in the most horrible of circumstances. I believe, however, that grandchildren or distant relations of people who had works of art or property taken away by the Nazis do not now have an inalienable right to ownership, at the beginning of the 21st century. If valuable objects have ended up in the public sphere, even on account of the terrible facts of history, then that is the way it is.

If, because of provenance research, works of art are taken from museums, whether in Russia, Germany, France, the US or the UK, and are then sold on for profit or passed around for political expediency, it is nearly always the rich who are making themselves richer. The vast majority of individuals, who were beaten up or killed during the Nazi period—or indeed by other oppressors in different parts of Europe—did not have art treasures that their children and grandchildren can now claim as compensation. The concept of the “universal museum” is also, in certain circumstances, a politically useful euphemism. Nonetheless, it has to be good that important works of art should be available to all through public ownership. Restitution claims from museums go against this idea and result in the general culture being impoverished.

The outgoing director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, was forced to send the Metropolitan Euphronios vase back to Italy earlier this year. This begged the question, does Italy really need another vase by this artist, when there are others? Italy has so many great objects of this kind that one piece, however outstanding, makes little difference. To the best of my knowledge, this vase is not even on public view at the moment. At the Metropolitan, however, it could quite easily have inspired young people to get involved in, or spend their lives with, classical culture.

There is much market-driven hypocrisy buried within the subject of restitution. The art market encourages restitution from museums, which is particularly cynical and unpleasant—it is well known that lawyers and auction houses are trying to drum up trade in this way. Auction houses, the trade and the high value of works of art all have legitimate functions, but this kind of provenance activity does not reflect well on the world of art. It is like a microcosm of what is going on in the wider world—for instance, the illegitimate selling of sub-prime mortgages that has now caused such deep financial trouble around the world.

There are those who will disagree. They will say that Germany can’t be punished enough for what took place between 1933 and 1945. It goes without saying that what the Nazis did was a stain for all time on the reputation of a culture and a country. But that stain cannot be cleansed by the restitution of master works from museums. After all, neither Rembrandt nor Klimt were responsible for those political crimes.

There should now surely be a statute of limitations on this kind of restitution. If we were still in 1950 and the people who owned the Manet or the Monet were still alive, then it would surely be correct to give these paintings back, but not now and not to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The world should let go of the past and live in the present. Of course, the best of the past needs to be looked after, but we should not be overly obsessive about the worst of the past—it is not useful either to individuals or society as a whole. Each person should invent him or herself creatively in the present, and not on the back of the lost wealth of ancestors.

The writer was exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts, 1977-2008. This piece was based on a discussion with William Oliver.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘'The time has come for a statute of limitations''