Since 1997 the British Museum has been researching the provenance of its collections to establish whether works that had previously been stolen by the Nazis in the period 1933–1945 had unwittingly been acquired.
Similar initiatives have taken place around spoliation during the Holocaust and World War II in public museums across the UK, Europe, Canada and the United States.
For further information, see G. Bartrum, 'Research into wartime provenance at the British Museum', British Museum Magazine, no. 37, Summer 2000, pp. 13–15.
What action is being taken?
The British Museum is one of a number of UK museums and galleries that list works in their collection for which we have incomplete or uncertain knowledge of their whereabouts between 1933 and 1945 on the Collections Trust website. In such cases where it is known that an object was forcibly obtained by the Nazis, every effort has been made to ascertain that it was correctly restituted at the end of World War II and that the Museum’s acquisition was made with good title.
We are always eager to receive more information on the provenance of works in the collections. If you have any specific queries related to 1933-45 spoliation please contact Olenka Horbatsch. Claims may be subject to review and recommendations by the Spoliation Advisory Panel.
Works on paper
The value and portability of works on paper, particularly Old Master drawings, has meant that special emphasis has been paid to provenance research in the Department of Prints and Drawings. Few drawings have an unbroken provenance history from their time of creation to the present day, and it is often difficult to ascertain their ownership during the critical period of 1933–1945. Research on the departmental register and letter books has recently eliminated some 860 drawings from the enquiry by clarifying ownership details. Work continues in this area when resources are available.
All the known information on the history of ownership of the Museum's collection, together with images, of well over 50,000 British and Continental European drawings is available through Collection online.
Where the Museum has been unable to confirm ownership details of a drawing, the following statement has been added to the online record: 'This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933–45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era.'
When spoliation questions have arisen regarding drawings in the British Museum, such as the works that were found to have been seized from Dr Arthur Feldmann in 1939, they have been promptly investigated and resolved.