More staff needed to check for stolen art

March 10, 2000

University museums face an uphill struggle in checking their collections for works of art stolen during the Holocaust and second world war because of a lack of staff and resources.

The task, requested by the Museums and Galleries Commission last year, has already resulted in the 23 national museums and galleries voicing concern over the provenance of 350 works, including pieces by Monet, Cezanne and Picasso.

University museums, however, are lagging behind their national counterparts in carrying out the research.

Timothy Wilson, keeper of western art at Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum, said: "Like many other university museums, we are committed to researching our collections to check the provenance of works. The work is ongoing, but it is a mammoth task that involves creating a huge computerised inventory system. The pace at which we can go is limited by lack of staff."

The Ashmolean is officially recognised as holding works of national and international importance. The collection includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics. Mr Wilson said the museum's research so far, particularly on paintings and drawings, had not identified any items whose provenance is likely to give rise to a claim. But he added: "We still have a lot of work to do. There are possibly thousands of objects whose provenance needs to be ascertained over [the period] 1933 to 1945. It is a difficult task that has to be carried out with extreme care and the results checked and re-checked."

Timothy Mason, MGC director said: "We are hoping to provide some extra funding for university museums to research their collections - it is clear they could do with it. What they need most is extra staff to help with the work as it is very intensive and time-consuming."

Jane Weeks, an MGC consultant on restitution, said: "I am very anxious that non-national museums such as those in the university sector are not seen to be dragging their feet. The national museums are moving fast on the issue but the non-national sector simply does not have the funding or resources to move as quickly."

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