A large number of cultural objects and works of art were systematically looted by the Nazis and others during the Second World War and the Holocaust Era from 1933-1945; an activity which is often described as spoliation.
The Leicester collection continues to grow with new gifts, loans and occasional purchases. Like all Accredited museums, the service is guided by a formal Collections Development Policy. The development of the Expressionism collection is also supported by a more detailed report on future collecting priorities commissioned as part of the Arts Council funded German Expressionism project.
The Leicester collection of Early 20th century German Art, particularly its examples of German Expressionism, has always been acquired with the utmost care. This ensures that the items entering the collection come from reliable sources and are beyond doubt coming with full legal title. As an Accredited Museum, we must follow this principle anyway, but with this type of collection it is especially important as much of the art was created in Germany prior to or during the Nazi period of 1933-1945, a place and time when a great deal of art was systematically looted.
From 1933 to 1945 the Nazi regime pursued a systematic programme of looting, particularly from Jews and others who fled into exile or were sent to concentration camps. Works of art were then given to Nazi-approved collections, destroyed for ideological reasons or sold to raise money. In 1943 the British and Allied governments made formal declaration that these actions were illegal and subsequent transfers and dealings were invalid. Many paintings were returned in the post-war years but often the original owners, or their heirs, were living abroad and had no way of finding missing works or proving their ownership due to the lack of records.
In the 1990s fresh information emerged from the former Soviet Union and advances in Information Technology made collating and accessing data much easier. The 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art were endorsed by 44 governments who promised to identify property which might have been looted and to facilitate claims by the rightful owners. In Britain museums are now required to exercise ‘due diligence’ when making new acquisitions and to investigate the history of existing collections, publishing the results on a national website.
That website still exists today where you can read more about art that was looted between 1933 and 1945 and find the full Statement of Principles, it can be found here: Cultural Property Advice website.
The Leicester Collection
As stated above, the Leicester collection was always acquired with great care even before the Statement of Principles existed. Patrick Boylan was the Director of Leicester and Leicestershire Museums and Arts from 1972 -1990 and oversaw a major collecting period for the collection. Speaking in 2014 about collecting artworks for the German Expressionist Collection during the 1970s, he said:
“We were very conscious of the fact that tens of thousands of very important 20th Century German works, and of course hundreds of thousands of other works of art had been looted, or stolen or taken on false sales during the Nazi period. We would not touch anything unless it was coming from an identifiable source; what the current jargon is ‘it’s got a good provenance’.”
Today, Leicester Arts and Museums Service’s collecting policy uses the statement of principles ‘Spoliation of Works of Art during the Nazi, Holocaust and World War II period’, issued for non-national museums in 1999 by the Museums and Galleries Commission.
The section of the statement of principles that relates directly to collecting is reproduced here:
4.1 In accordance with standard good practice institutions acquiring any new object should:
- exercise due diligence in satisfying themselves that the vendor or donor or executors have good title to the object;
- in accordance with the MA guidance (referred to above) and registration requirements of MLA take reasonable steps to satisfy themselves that the object has not been wrongfully taken without restitution having taken place subsequently;
- seek from the vendor, donor or executors the fullest possible information with regard to provenance including for the years 1933-45.
4.2 In accordance with standard practice all information with regard to provenance collected during the acquisition process must be recorded on the main acquisition file.
4.3 For unique works of art with a value in excess of the level requiring an export licence, for which the provenance in the period 1933-45 is uncertain, and which may have been outside the UK for all or part of this period, it is recommended that a check be made with the Art Loss Register and/or other appropriate databases of missing works of art/claimants. Detailed guidance (referred to at 1.5a above) will provide suggestions regarding other types of check that may be carried out, depending on the nature of the acquisition.
4.4 If there is no evidence of wrongful taking then the acquisition may proceed. If there is evidence of wrongful taking then the institution should not proceed to acquire the object.
4.5 Guidance for staff (referred at 1.5a above) should include information and advice on:
- use of warranties
- information to seek from vendor or lender
- suggested sources of information and approaches to checking provenance.
4.6 Consistent with current practice institutions should publish, display or otherwise make accessible all recent gifts, bequests and purchases thereby making them available for further research examination and study.