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Nazi loot

Police seize medieval casket from V&A due to Nazi loot claims

The Czartoryski family in Poland, who lost much of their art during the war, say it belongs to them

Scotland Yard Has Seized A Medieval Casket From The Victoria And Albert Museum (V&A), Following A Nazi-Era Spoliation Claim That It Was Looted In Poland

The Art Newspaper can reveal that a Metropolitan Police officer was sent to the museum on 30 January to remove the treasure. This is believed to be the first time in living memory that UK police have seized an object from a national museum, other than under obscenity laws.

The enamel casket, made in Limoges in about 1200, was made to hold relics of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury until his murder in 1170. It was lent anonymously to the V&A in 1981, and had been on display in the museum’s Medieval Treasury until 2000. The reliquary was then put into store, awaiting the opening of the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, scheduled to open in 2009. The V&A also owns a slightly earlier Becket casket, dating from 1180, which was purchased in 1996 for £4.3m.

Nazi loot

The Polish claim for the casket on loan was submitted last November to the Spoliation Advisory Panel, an independent body set up by the UK government to deal with works of art in museums which may have been wrongly taken during the Nazi era. The panel passed a copy of the claim to the V&A, which says that it “informed the owner, who asked for the casket to be returned.” Under the loan agreement, the owner was required to give three months’ notice for its withdrawal.

Last month a museum spokesperson told The Art Newspaper that “our lawyers advised that we should return the object to the owner after the three months specified in the loan agreement”. Notice was given in January, and the casket was therefore due to be returned in April.

However, the Metropolitan Police intervened, visiting the museum on 29 January and returning the following day. A Scotland Yard spokesman was unwilling to discuss the case, only stating that “at 15.30 on 30 January officers attended an address in South Kensington and recovered an item, pending enquiries into its history and whether any offences are disclosed”.

We understand that the seizure took place on the basis of information provided by the claimant, under section 19 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. This gives a constable the power to seize an object if there are reasonable grounds for believing that it has been obtained in consequence of the committing of an offence. In this case, the possible offences could be that of handling stolen property (although it would be necessary to establish that this had been done knowingly) or money laundering. The police seizure was made without consultation with the V&A, the Spoliation Advisory Panel or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Polish castle

The Art Newspaper has identified both the owner and the claimant. The casket was purchased from a private owner in 1954 for the personal collection of Margaret Drey, a London art dealer who ran the F.A. Drey gallery. She and her husband were Jewish, and had fled from Munich shortly before World War II. Margaret died in 1964 and the casket passed to her son, who offered it on long-term loan to the V&A in 1981. The son has since died and it is currently owned by his daughter.

The owner’s solicitor, Jeremy Scott, of Withers, told us last month: “Margaret Drey and her husband Franz were very well-known for their expertise and integrity as dealers, and had suffered greatly from the events in Germany in the Nazi period. The current owner bitterly resents the suggestion in the claim that either of her grandparents could have knowingly or recklessly acquired an item of Nazi loot. She is especially shocked by the heavy-handed involvement of the London police.”

The claimant is the Czartoryski family, one of the major aristocratic families of Europe and owners of Poland’s finest private art collection. Much of their collection, including a group of Limoges enamels, had been kept at their castle at Goluchow, south-east of Poznan, which became a museum in 1893.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, many of the family treasures were moved and hidden at another residence in Sieniawa. Two years later the Nazis threatened Princess Czartoryski, and she revealed where the objects had been buried. They were then seized and taken to the National Museum in Warsaw. The museum was partly sacked during the Warsaw uprising of August 1944, although many items were retained by the Nazis and sent for safekeeping in Austria.

The Czartoryski claim was submitted through the London-based Commission for Looted Art, which acts on behalf of those who lost works of art during the 1933-45 period. It also appears that the Polish government has become involved in the case, arguing that the casket was illegally exported.

The key question which will have to be addressed is whether the Drey casket is indeed the one owned by the Czartoryski family. The most detailed description of the casket is in a catalogue written by Emile Molinier in 1903. The dimensions given by Molinier are within half a centimetre of those of the Drey casket and the subject matter is also the same. However, the positioning of the apostles appears to be different, raising the question of whether they are the same casket.

The legal situation has now become very complex. The Spoliation Advisory Panel met on 7 March, and confirmed that as the casket was no longer at the V&A, it had no jurisdiction, unless both parties asked it to reach a judgement. Under its terms of reference, “the Panel shall also be available to advise about any claim for an item in a private collection at the joint request of the claimant and the owner.” Technically, however, the object is currently in the possession of the police, adding further complications.

Scotland Yard is continuing its investigations to determine whether offences have taken place. The Drey family are now considering procedures for seeking the return of the casket, and this might lead to a case being brought under the Police Property Act of 1897.

Meanwhile, the Czartoryskis will be pressing for the casket to be sent to Poland. Much of the family’s collection is now at the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, which was confirmed as a nationally-funded institution in 1991, following the fall of communism. Since then the family has recovered a number of objects which were looted by the Nazis, including an important “polonaise” carpet. Their greatest lost treasure remains Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, which went missing in 1945 (February 1998, p3).