The passing of Norman Palmer QC CBE

Posted on: October 11, 2016 by

Last week, Professor Norman Palmer QC CBE passed away. He was the Academic Principal of the Institute of Art & Law, having served as its guiding light for over twenty years. It was because of him – his tireless commitment to teaching new generations of students, his profound understanding of the law of cultural property and his passion and curiosity for new ideas – that the Institute is where it is today.

Of course he also had an extensive academic career, culminating in a Chair in Commercial Law at University College London, and a long-standing commitment to public service. He had chaired a number of government-appointed cultural heritage bodies and until last year was Expert Advisor to the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, a body that hears claims involving Holocaust-era art kept at British institutions. All the while, he maintained his practice as a barrister and as such was instructed on some of the best-known cultural property disputes of the last decade.


Professor Norman Palmer QC CBE.

But Norman was much more than even these accolades demonstrate. For anyone who knew him, he was a kind and compassionate man, open to all those looking to gain a better understanding of the law. He had time for everyone, whether they were students inquiring about the tort of conversion or foreign governments seeking his expert advice; Norman would never discriminate. When he invited you to a dinner at his favourite Greek restaurant, you wouldn’t be surprised to see him sharing a table with an ambassador, a leading scholar, a foreign dignitary or one or two undergraduates from Kings or UCL. He treated every interlocutor as an equal and every question as worthy of his time. And though he seemed to possess all the answers, he was always able – and certainly more than willing – to change his perspective as the result of a well-placed submission. His mind remained adaptable, resilient and always open to new ideas and challenges.

It was the same approach he used in his professional work. Like all good barristers, he was an advocate. He would argue his side’s case in the most convincing and logically compelling of ways. But he always remained motivated by the search for an amicable resolution, not one fought out in court, but one resulting from the parties sitting around the table and seeing eye-to-eye.

In his lectures, he often quoted a line from a 17th Century peace treaty: “One peace is worth countless victories.” The titles of some of his recent journal publications – ‘Relinquishment and Responsibility’, ‘Waging and Engaging: Reflection on the Mediation of Art and Antiquity Claims’, ‘The Best We Can Do? Exploring a Collegiate Approach to Holocaust-related Claims’ – indicate that he took this saying to heart. A resolution was always possible, and in it both sides could be satisfied. He believed this. And nowhere is such an approach more necessary than in the legal world, where parties often get carried away in the desire to emerge victorious at any cost. Norman refused to subscribe to this mindset. And the cultural sector was better for it.

He brought his level-headed approach to the chairmanship of a number of committees: the Illicit Trade Advisory Panel (2000-2005) through which he helped cement the case for the UK acceding to the 1970 UNESCO Convention; the Ministerial Working Group on Human Remains (2000-2003) which took on the challenge of the treatment of indigenous human remains in public collections with dignity and heart; and the Treasure Valuation Committee, which sought to find an appropriate balance between the interests of finders of buried treasure, those who owned the land and the State.

He was a member of the Spoliation Advisory Panel from its inception in 2000, eventually becoming Expert Advisor, until he stepped down voluntarily in response to the call of the Jenkins Report for committee membership to be renewed. He also maintained important connections with Australia, where he was legal counsel to several major cultural institutions and was instrumental in Australia’s recent adoption of a law protecting loaned cultural objects from judicial seizure.

As Academic Principal of the Institute of Art & Law, he helped forge art and cultural property law in the UK in the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when the overall understanding of the discipline was at a minimum. His pre-existing expertise in bailment and chattels law was a perfect fit for his critical evaluation of the treatment of works of art and antiquities under English common law, as seen in books like Art Loans and Museums and the Holocaust and in the many articles published in the quarterly Art Antiquity and Law.

This led to instructions from international clients such as the Governments of Iran, Greece and Hungary looking to recover important objects of their cultural heritage that had ended up in Britain. And it was one of these matters that brought about the seminal decision of the English Court of Appeal in Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran v Barakat Gallaries [2007] EWCA Civ 1374, a case that many saw as opening the door to an era of widespread restitution of cultural objects from UK institutions.

Then of course there was the legal opinion that he was asked to write with Geoffrey Robertson QC and Amal Clooney on the position of the Elgin Marbles in international and domestic law, a document that was delivered to the Greek Government in the summer of 2015. “The only time I was ever photographed for Paris Match,” he once said wryly, commenting on the experience.

Above all it will be Norman Palmer the man who will be remembered. He was a caring and endlessly patient individual, one who has left an indelible mark on the students he taught, the clients he advised, the colleagues he worked with and the friends he kept. “One of life’s true gentlemen,” said one journalist after learning of his passing. Others have commented on social media: “An inspiration to so many.” “A lovely man.” “A tremendous loss. Norman invented art law & was a driving force in cultural heritage protection.” For me, a much younger professional in this field whom Norman always treated with respect and patience, he will remain a brilliant teacher, a tireless seeker after the truth, and the kindest, most forgiving of souls.

There is one moment that says so much about Norman. In October 2014, upon the invitation of the Greek Government, the advisory team on the reconstitution of the Parthenon sculptures came to Athens to meet with the Culture Minister and the various cultural bodies. This was a big affair. The journalists were out in droves, fighting one another to get a pic of Hollywood royalty. A limo bus pulled up and out stepped Mr Robertson and Mrs Clooney. Flashbulbs went off. Smiles everywhere. And if you watch the footage of the event closely, in the background behind all the fuss, you can just make out Norman quietly getting off the bus behind his co-counsel. And as he does, he turns his head to thank the driver.

Donations in memory of Prof Palmer will be accepted by C.C James, the Funeral Director at Hengardd, Pontithel, Brecon, Wales, LD3 0SA, (tel +44(0)1497 847410) in favour of the following selected charities: the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Salvation Army.