MP Theresa Villiers made an impassioned plea in Parliament today for Holocaust survivors and their families to continue to have art stolen by the Nazis returned to them.
The former Northern Ireland Secretary introduced the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill which will remove a ten-year ‘sunset clause’ from a law passed in 2009 which allows looted art to be returned.
Without the amendment, victims of Nazi persecution and their descendants will not be able claim their property after November next year if it is discovered in a number of major national museums, libraries and galleries.
Presenting the ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’ to the House of Commons, Theresa told MPs: “Throughout the 1930s and 40s, property of all kinds was systematically stolen from millions of people as part of Hitler’s horrific genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jewish community. That included many precious works of art.
“The appalling crimes of the Nazis can never be remedied but there is action that we can take to return works of art to the people from whom they were stolen.
“There may still be potential claimants who are unaware of the location of artworks owned by relatives who died in the Holocaust.
“So, the moral case for this legislation remains as strong today as it was eight years ago when the original legislation was passed. Indeed, the case is arguably stronger than it was then as we have fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors still with us.”
The Chipping Barnet MP explained that the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 allows 17 national institutions the power to return works in cases where it is recommended by an advisory panel and approved by the Culture Secretary.
But the Act also contains a sunset clause which means that it will cease to have effect after 11 November next year.
“After that date, institutions will no longer be able to return works of art to Holocaust survivors or to the families of those who perished in the genocide,” Theresa explained.
She said her bill would keep the legislation on the statute book by repealing the sunset clause.
“Parliament was right in 2009 to give our national museums the power to restore property lost in these terrible circumstances to its rightful owners,” she said. “It has worked well during its eight years on the statute book, resolving cases in a fair and balanced way.”
The bill, which has government backing, will now go forward for further consideration and a possible second reading on 27th April.
It has been warmly welcomed by the museum community. It is estimated that around 100,000 cultural objects pillaged during the Nazi era still remain hidden today.
Significant works of art such as the British Library’s 12th century Beneventan Missal manuscript - looted during the Allied bombing of Benevento in Italy in 1943 - have been returned to their owners thanks to the original 2009 Act.
A transcript of Theresa’s speech to Parliament is copied below. A Video of the speech can be found on her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/theresavillierscb/