840.403/6: Airgram

The Ambassador in the United Kingdom (Winant) to the Secretary of State

A–435. Department’s A–612, 7 p.m., April 19. The Embassy has received a note dated May 31, 1943, from the Foreign Office. After referring to the Embassy’s note of May 3rd which transmitted as requested by the Department, the suggestion for the creation of Committees in the United States, United Kingdom, and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to examine the question of works of art looted from European territory, and asked what study the British Government had made of this problem, the Foreign Office note continues as follows:

  • “2. His Majesty’s Government have always had in mind that some sort of Reconstruction Commission, operating probably under the supervision of such United Nations authority as was deemed appropriate, would be required for the purpose inter alia of endeavouring to recover looted works of art, and to effect their return to their lawful owners. To the extent, therefore, that the committees, which the United States Government have in mind, could help the work of the Reconstruction Commission by preliminary study and by the collection of information, His Majesty’s Government would be in favour of their establishment.
  • 3. The question, however, of deciding on compensation, whether in kind or otherwise, in cases where works of art could not be found or had been damaged, raises problems of a different order. Such demands for compensation will be only one among many categories of claims made against the enemy countries after the war, and it does not seem possible to consider them in isolation. This question seems to His Majesty’s Government to be essentially a matter for the Governments concerned, and one which could not usefully be discussed by committees of the kind proposed.
  • 4. It is in any event clear that the machinery required for identifying and recovering works of art will be much the same as in the case of other looted property. It therefore seems important that the functions of the proposed committees should be clearly laid down, and the nature of ‘works of art’ strictly defined. Is it, for instance, intended that these should include historic and cultural treasures and the contents of libraries? His Majesty’s Government would be glad to know what the United States Government have in mind in this connexion.
  • 5. They would also be glad to learn the views of the United States Government on the manner in which such committees, if set up, would operate, and on their general composition and status. His Majesty’s Government are not themselves primarily affected by the looting of works of art in Europe, and it seems to them that the major [Page 475] contribution to the studies of such a committee, if set up in London, would necessarily come from the seven Allied Governments temporarily established in London and from the Greek Government, who maintain a nucleus staff here. This being the case, it would seem that an intergovernmental committee composed of representatives of these Governments and representatives or observers of the United States, Soviet and United Kingdom Governments, if they so wished, would be the most appropriate body for this work in London. His Majesty’s Government presume that it would be the intention that the three committees should be given official status, and that the members should represent their respective Governments. If, however, their chief function was to identify works of art the members would presumably need to be experts.
  • 6. His Majesty’s Government have not given close study to this problem which, as explained above, is not of direct concern to them, though they are naturally interested in seeing that pillaged property is returned to its rightful owners. Nevertheless, there exists in London a purely unofficial Committee of the Central Institute of Art and Design of the National Gallery, which contains a number of foreign representatives and has already given a considerable amount of preliminary study to the subject. It might be possible to associate this committee with any new body which is set up in London, or at least arrange for the information collected by this unofficial committee to be made available to the new committee. The new committee would also no doubt enjoy the benefit of information collected by the committee set up under the Interallied Declaration of the 5th January, 1943, against Acts of Dispossession.6
  • 7. Your Excellency will observe from the above that His Majesty’s Government are in general favourably disposed to the suggestion contained in Your Excellency’s communication, and they would be glad to have the observations of the United States Government on the points mentioned in this note.”

  1. For text of declaration, see p. 443; also printed as British Cmd. 6418, Misc. No. 1 (1943): Inter-Allied Declaration against Acts of Dispossession committed in Territories under Enemy Occupation or Control.