Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The National Art Collections Fund

  The National Art Collections Fund welcomes the Committee's inquiry into the illicit trade in, and return of, cultural property. Despite their significance to international cultural heritage, these major issues have not yet received full public debate in the UK. We sincerely hope that the inquiry will promote informed public interest and that it will lead to the adoption of appropriate measures on both aspects of the subject.


  The National Art Collections Fund is the UK's leading art charity with over 130,000 members. Since it was founded in 1903 it has helped museums, galleries and historic houses to acquire works of art of all types; last year it gave grants of £4.1 million, a record figure.


  As part of its grants-giving policy:

    —  the Fund does not itself undertake the responsibility for establishing or verifying the provenance of objects for which it provides a grant; this is clearly stated in our grant conditions as being the responsibility of the benefiting institution;

    —  the Fund will not provide grants towards objects unless it is satisfied that the applicant has exercised due diligence in the provision of provenance details; and

    —  in the case of antiquities, in common with the National Museums and Galleries and the Museums and Galleries Commission, the Fund does not support the acquisition of objects that have appeared on the market without provenance going back to at least 1970.


  We are not in a position to make more than general observations about the market in illicitly traded objects. Our principal concern is that there has been very little assistance or information available to museums and galleries, some of which demonstrate worrying naiveté in matters of acquisition and provenance. This is particularly true of smaller museums and is more of a problem in certain areas of collection, eg antiquities and archaeological material. Without assistance, such as codes of practice/guidelines on acquisition and provenance and easily available and reliable sources of information on illicitly traded objects, museums may lose confidence in acquiring objects and give up, rather than run the risk of making unethical acquisitions. This would have a damaging effect upon both the development of museum collections and on the legitimate trade.

  4.  Ultimately, the responsibility rests with individual museums to operate a "caveat emptor" policy. However, museums and galleries cannot tackle these problems effectively on their own and arguably should not be expected to do so. Through legislation, policies and guidance, and through collaboration with other governments, the Government has a duty to take the lead.


  (a)  The variation between the different legislative systems, their enforcement and interpretations within the EU and worldwide, is a major contributing factor to the scale of the problem. We recommend that the Government should ratify the 1970 UNESCO and 1995 UNIDROIT Conventions as a first step; or implement measures to achieve the same ends;

  (b)  the Government should not make available tax benefits (such as AIL and conditional exemption) where the objects concerned lack sufficient provenance;

  (c)  the Government indemnity scheme should not cover loans of unprovenanced material to UK museums;

  (d)  a central source of information should be funded by government, to provide information about a) other countries' export legislation; and b) objects that have been illicitly traded;

  (e)  the Government should address the present inadequacy of specialist police forces covering illicit trade; and

  (f)  the Government should participate in greater international co-operation on illicit trade.


  (a)  A central advisory source should be set up with government funding to provide museums that have doubts about specific objects with names of the most appropriate experts;

  (b)  Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries should endorse and promote the MGC's guidelines, Restitution and Repatriation, the MA Codes of Ethics, Ethical Guidelines on Acquisition and Provenance, and Buying in the Market;

  (c)  There should be a government-funded central source of information on objects known to have been illicitly traded.


  (a)  Museums should not acquire objects without full provenance and should ensure, so far as is possible, that they have full legal title to all objects within their collections;

  (b)  museums should not accept gifts, bequests or loans of unprovenanced objects;

  (c)  museums should not appear to condone unprovenanced objects through any collaboration with the person in current possession or association with the object, eg through publication or exhibitions; and

  (d)  museums should adhere to all professional Codes of Conduct or official guidelines that address issues of provenance and legal title and their acquisition policies should be based upon them.


  Restitution of objects other than those acquired by illegal means involves a number of highly complex issues. It is important, therefore, that such cases should be dealt with on a case by case basis. Procedures for the consideration of such cases need to be in place, with general guidelines and principles for reference, but it would be neither practical nor appropriate to have a rigid legal framework. There are very different issues to be considered depending on whether the object is being contested by an individual, as a private property claim, or by a state as part of a "national heritage" claim.

  9.  Museums and galleries lack guidance on these issues. The Spoliation Advisory Panel, recently established to consider items unjustly acquired as a result of action by the Nazis, might be an appropriate model for a similar committee for other return cases. Any committee of referral that is set up will have to work pragmatically with an eye to public expectations of what is fair and just; there will often be difficulties in striking the balance between legally correct solutions and public reaction.

  10.  We are not able to make detailed recommendations but we would like to put on record the following:


  We welcome the lead taken by the National Museums and Galleries in examining their collections for works looted during the Holocaust and Second World War period (1933-45). We will do all we can to provide assistance. It is probable that, in time, the public will expect objects acquired in other recent periods of conflict to be similarly examined and will expect access to museum records.


  Official encouragement of a nationalist interpretation of culture is to be avoided, but it is clear that there are a few items of exceptional significance, that justify special consideration. Particular attention should be paid to cases involving religious or sacred material and human remains.

  13.  It is important that return claims should be approached by government and museums in a spirit of open-mindedness and co-operation. Return is not always feasible or in the best interests of the object in question; solutions other than return are more likely to be agreed within an atmosphere of collaboration rather than antagonism and the cultural gain to both countries is likely to be enhanced rather than diminished by the relationship.

March 2000

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