UK museums are required to present themselves as the ethical guardians rather than simply the owners of their collections (Museums Association Code of Ethics principles 1.0 and 1.3). Museums which are members of the International Council of Museums are required, when acquiring objects for their collections, to ensure that they obtain valid title, rather than simply strict legal title, to the object (ICOM Code of Ethics, principle 2.2). This notion of valid title focuses on the relationship between the current possessor (the museum) and the object. However, one can also see the concept of claimants having moral claims to cultural heritage objects developing in the context of the notion of the “rightful owner” which is a term increasingly deployed to signify the person who has a valid moral, rather than legal, claim to the cultural heritage object (Seventh Report of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee 1999-2000 ).
Since 2000 the UK has introduced mechanisms to resolve, in limited circumstances, moral claims to cultural objects of which their owners were dispossessed during the Nazi era. This paper analyses the way in which a concept of moral title can be seen to have developed in the context of the resolution of Nazi era claims by the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel. To this end the paper analyses: how far the moral entitlement is linked with the legal title to the object; and whether moral title arises from the morally abhorrent dispossession that befell the claimant or his ancestor or whether it results from the recommendation of the Spoliation Advisory Panel. It is argued that the development of the notion of moral title poses challenges for the future, but an understanding of its role may also inform the resolution of disputes involving cultural heritage objects outside the context of the Nazi era.