Research into war-time provenance at the British Museum

All departments in the British Museum have been carrying out research into the provenance of their collections to establish whether anything could have been stolen by the Nazis prior to acquisition by the British Museum.

This has taken place in response to a government initiative to take positive action towards this issue, following an approach by Lord Janner of the Holocaust Educational Trust in 1997. All national and local museums within the UK have been urged by the government to examine the issues surrounding the spoliation of art during the Holocaust and World War II. Similar initiatives have taken place in public museums across Europe, Canada and the United States. See G. Bartrum, 'Research into war-time provenance at the British Museum', British Museum Magazine, no. 37, Summer 2000, pp. 13-15 for further details.

Action has been coordinated by the working group set up in June 1998 by the National Museum Directors' Conference (NMDC) which is chaired by the director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota. Results of the research taking place in museums and galleries across the UK can be seen on the government the Collections Trust’s Cultural Property Advice website which is updated regularly.

This website shows lists provided by each institution, including the British Museum, of items for which further information is sought and the whereabouts of which are unknown for all or part of the period 1933 - 1945. In such cases where it is known that an object was forcibly acquired by the Nazis, every effort has been made to ensure that the material was correctly restituted at the end of World War II and that subsequent acquisitions were made with good title.

Circle of Martin Schongauer, St Dorothy, from the Feldmann collection

Circle of Martin Schongauer, St Dorothy, from the Feldmann collection

Special emphasis has been made on provenance research in the Department of Prints and Drawings. This type of research is not at all straightforward because art dealers do not routinely keep long term records of all material that passes through their hands, and it is common for the history of an object's ownership to be incomplete.

In 1997, the Museum acquired on the death of Mrs Rosi Schilling the majority of a collection of mostly northern Old Master drawings assembled by her late husband the curator and later drawings dealer and adviser, Edmund Schilling (1888-1974). Schilling was born in Germany and came to Britain in 1937 after the rise of the Nazis. He was prominent as a specialist in German Old Master drawings and his widow’s bequest in his memory was predominantly made up of studies that he had collected in this field. Given its importance, the Museum accepted the bequest for public benefit in good faith, and has afterwards researched its history, insofar as it has been able. There remain however many works in the bequest with uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933-45.

A long list of old master drawings shows all continental drawings, including those from the Schilling Bequest with an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the 1933-1945 period. The Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of these works during that era.

The extensive collection of prints has not been subjected to systematic research because individual prints exist in numerous identical impressions and are consequently impossible to identify in almost every case. Further details can be seen on the government Cultural Property Advice website which provides full information on research into spoliation being carried out in the British Museum and other museums and galleries throughout the United Kingdom.

Claims settled by the UK government Spoliation Advisory Panel

Feldmann drawings, 2006

Press release: Four drawings in the British Museum formerly in the collection of Arthur Feldmann 
 Report of the Spoliation Advisory Panel

Porcelain in the British Museum and Fitzwilliam Museum, 2008

 Report of the Spoliation Advisory Panel

14 clocks and watches, 2012

 Report of the Spoliation Advisory Panel

Drawing in the style of George Pencz, 2013

Press release: Spoliation case settled