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July 20, 2011

ARCA's 2011 IACC: Charlotte Woodhead on “Assessing the Moral Strength of Holocaust Art Restitution Claims”

By Molly Cotter, ARCA Intern

At ARCA's third annual International Art Crime Conference in Amelia on July 9, Charlotte Woodhead, Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick, shared her analysis of the numerous moral considerations of the United Kingdom’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which hears claims relating to World War II thefts of cultural objects.

Founded only in the year 2000 and keeping in mind the time bars involved in civil suits, the panel assesses and resolves claims from people, or their heirs, who lost property during the Nazi era which is now held in UK national collections. Members of the panel, including lawyers, judges, professors, an art dealer and a baroness are appointed by the Secretary of State and consider both legal and non-legal obligations, such as the moral strength of the claimant’s case, and whether any moral obligation rests on the holding institution. In cases where the claimants received post-war compensation, the panel also considers any potential unjust enrichment were the object to be returned or a monetary reward offered. The public interest of a piece is also a factor in deciding whether to simply return the item or offer a reward.

The panel’s proceedings are an alternative to litigation, and its recommendations are not legally binding on any parties. However, if a claimant accepts the recommendation of the Panel, and the recommendation is implemented, the claimant is expected to accept this as full and final settlement of the claim.

Woodhead also discussed the difference between UK claim resolution and those of the Restitution Committee of the Netherlands. The British panel seeks restitution for art lost or stolen during the Nazi era (1933-1945) whereas the Dutch committee focuses on art lost in direct relation to the Nazi regime. Regardless of their differences, Woodhead stressed the importance of the existence of these panels saying “Nazi stolen art is different from stolen art as there is a wider cultural goal to right the wrongs of the past.”