British Museum may return Old Masters to family of Czech collector

Martin Johann Schmidt's Madonna and Child, photo: CTK

The British Museum said on Wednesday that it may return four Old Masters drawings confiscated by the Nazis from a Jewish collector, one of the first such claims against an art collection in Britain. The 16th and 18th century artworks were said to have belonged to the collection of Dr Arthur Feldmann, a collector from Brno who died at the hands of the Nazis in 1941. Dr Feldmann's family has spent years searching for his collection of more than 750 drawings, which was seized by the Gestapo. Rob Cameron reports.

Martin Johann Schmidt's Madonna and Child,  photo: CTK
Arthur Feldmann was imprisoned and sentenced to death following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. He died as a result of ill-treatment in 1941, while his wife was murdered at Auschwitz. Dr Feldmann's collection contained more than 750 valuable drawings, many of which disappeared after the Second World War. Four of them, say his family, are now in the British Museum in London - Niccolo dell'Abbate's Holy Family, Martin Johann Schmidt's Madonna and Child, St Dorothy and the Christ Child by a follower of Martin Schongauer and a Nicholas Blakey design for a book illustration.

The British Museum described the family's claim as "detailed" and "compelling" on Wednesday. The Museum claimed it had acquired the four drawings in good faith - three of the works were bought at a Sothebys auction in 1946, and the fourth came through a bequest. But in acknowledging the claim by Dr Feldmann's family, the Museum said it recognised that "the atrocities committed during 1933-45 represent a distinct and brutal period of modern history".

In 2001, a panel was set up by the British government to investigate the claims of former owners and their families about Nazi-confiscated art. Since then, national museums and galleries in Britain have received only one such claim, resulting in a 125,000 pound pay-out for a painting in the Tate Gallery's collection.

A spokeswoman for the museum told the Reuters news agency that the lost works may eventually be returned to the family, or they may be paid compensation.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe which researched and submitted the restitution claim on behalf of Dr Feldmann's descendants, praised the museum's findings. She told Radio Prague the Commission was delighted that the British Museum had unreservedly accepted that the drawings were looted, and welcomed the fact that the Museum had made a public commitment to wishing to return any looted art in its collection.