The Nazis’ plundering of hundreds of thousands of works of art from the private collections of Jews from 1933 to 1945 is considered the biggest art heist in history. The case hasn’t been solved. Since the 1950s, the rightful owners of roughly 2,000 artworks recovered by the Allies and later sent to the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and other French museums have remained a mystery.
Now the French government is beginning one of its most extensive efforts to return the stolen art, which includes pieces by Monet, Matisse, Renoir, and Rubens. Starting in March, a team of government historians, regulators, archivists, and curators will work almost full-time to track down families who lost their paintings. “It may be one of our last chances to find the owners,” says Jean-Pierre Bady, a former director at the French Ministry of Culture who helped assemble the group.
After the war, the Allies gathered the Nazi loot and sent artworks of owners who couldn’t immediately be found to governments across Europe. France received 61,233 pieces and managed to return almost three-quarters to their owners by mid-1949. An additional 13,500 with little value were auctioned. After 1954 the reparations effort for the remaining 2,000 came to a near standstill.
The French tried to revive it in the late 1990s by launching a website that lists the artworks and asking claimants to come forward. That did little to diminish the inventory. Since 1999, a government-sponsored commission has handed out €33 million ($44 million) in compensation to the owners of art that couldn’t be found, but returned only nine artworks.
For some families, the process has been slow going. Richard Neumann, an Austrian Jew who resided in France for part of the war, sold much of his collection to dealers at fire-sale prices so he could leave the country in 1941. The French believe six of his Italian pieces passed through Nazi hands, destined for a private museum Adolf Hitler was planning, before being sent to France after the war. Neumann’s grandson has been trying to recover the art since 2001, a complex process involving reams of paperwork and many hours of detective work by archivists. The Ministry of Culture announced on Feb. 14 that the grandson will finally take possession of the artwork this year.
The thousands of documents the art sleuths will need to sort through have been collecting dust in government buildings for decades. French Senator Corinne Bouchoux is calling on museums to assist by combing through their records to determine the exact provenance of all the works they’ve acquired since the war. “It would be a gigantic effort,” says art historian Muriel de Bastier. It took more than a year for a researcher looking into the Centre Pompidou’s collections to figure out that three paintings marked as “anonymous gifts” were actually from a looted collection.
Bruno Saunier, the Ministry of Culture’s director of art collections, says the government will focus its initial efforts on finding the owners of the 163 most valuable works, reaching out to museums and Holocaust survivor organizations around the world for help. “Our chances to find the heirs are very slim,” Saunier says. “A lot of time has passed. But we have to give it a try.”