Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- France is starting a search for the Jewish owners of about 2,000 pieces of Nazi-plundered art, from Monets and Rubens to Renoirs, that hang in museums such as the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Almost 70 years after World War II, France is making one of its biggest efforts to trace the Jewish owners of artworks stolen by the Nazis, recovered by the Allies and sent to the country after the war. President Francois Hollande’s government is setting up a group of historians, regulators, archivists and curators to actively track down families, instead of waiting for claimants to come forward. The group starts working in March.
“It may be one of our last chances to find the owners,” said Jean-Pierre Bady, a former director at the culture ministry, who’s a member of a 1999-created Commission for the Compensation of Spoliation Victims and who was instrumental in the formation of the group. “Seventy years is a long time, but it’s never too late to make things right.”
The Nazis seized hundreds of thousands of works of art from Jewish private collections between 1933 and 1945 as part of their policy of racial persecution in what has been seen as the biggest such heist in history. Much of the art was returned to national governments, with unclaimed pieces landing in museums.
In France, the Hollande government’s plan would mark the first effort to reach out to victims of the Nazis since 1995 when former President Jacques Chirac for the first time recognized France’s responsibility for collaborating in anti-Semitic persecutions during the country’s occupation by the Germans, acknowledging the deportation of Jewish people.
The new push follows a French Senate report last month that called on the government to be more proactive and transparent.
The report also calls for the government to make the archives on looted art at the foreign ministry and the Louvre museum more accessible, including the scanning of thousands of relevant documents still sitting in cartons.
Corinne Bouchoux, a Green Party senator and the author of the report, said museums should also provide more information on the origin of art they’ve added since the war.
Recent research by an art historian showed three paintings at the modern art museum Centre Pompidou in Paris came from a looted collection and were marked as being “anonymous gifts.” They’ve since been re-classified.
Following the Chirac speech, France set up a group in 1997 called the Matteoli Mission, which created the Commission for the Compensation of Spoliation Victims for all sorts of casualties of Nazi excesses. The mission searched for owners of looted goods for about two years.
“It was too short but it was a start, especially after decades of nearly no work,” Muriel de Bastier, the art historian member of the Commission.
Restitutions have not halted in the past decades. Victims or their relatives have contacted the Commission or France’s museums to recover their paintings.
The culture ministry will soon be returning seven paintings looted by the Nazis from two Jewish families.
Bruno Saunier, who heads the art collections at the National Museums’ Agency said on Feb. 14 that it was “the largest number of paintings returned to Jewish families in over a decade.” He said the state returns about one painting on average every year.
The artworks by painters including by Alessandro Longhi, Gaspare Diziani and Pieter Jansz van Asch were to have been displayed in the private museum Adolf Hitler had planned with looted art from great European collections. The two families had been demanding their restitution for several years.
The paintings are part of the 2,000 artworks that France wants to return to victims. The Pieter van Asch painting once belonged to Josef Wiener, a banker from the former Czechoslovakia.
The six Italian art pieces were from Richard Neumann’s collection in Vienna. With Nazi troops advancing, Neumann moved with his art collection and family to France. He sold much of his art at fire-sale prices to be able to leave France, demanding aid from the French government after the war to get them back. He failed. His octogenarian grandson, Thomas Selldorff, took over the effort in 2001.
The seven paintings were on a special list of 163 pieces considered to be “with certainty or with strong belief” among Nazi-looted art objects. They’re on the ministry’s website, http://www.culture.gouv.fr/documentation/mnr/MnR-pres.htm.
The list will be the priority of Hollande’s new group searching for descendants of victims.
“We believe that most of the major works that we will seek to return belong to families from Central and Eastern Europe, like Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Austria or Hungary,” Saunier said in an interview.
The Nazis looted art across occupied Europe as well as from Germany. The Allies assembled the plundered objects they found at the end of World War II at central collecting points in Germany, and sent artworks whose owners couldn’t immediately be found to the national government of their origin. It was up to governments to trace the owners of the works and return them.
Four years after the end of the war, the French government had returned three-quarters of the 61,233 art pieces that had been sent to the country. Of the remaining 15,792 pieces whose owners hadn’t been tracked down, about 13,500 with little art value were auctioned off while about 2,000 have exhibited in France’s 57 museums since the 1950s.
After 1954, the search for the rightful owners of the art came to a near standstill with only 79 restitutions between then and 1999. The Commission has since 1999 returned nine artworks and handed out 33 million euros ($44 million) in compensation for lost pieces. Its compensation is based on the estimated value of the paintings during the war.
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