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Looted art

Rightful owners emerge for exhibited Nazi war loot in the Centre Pompidou

A Foujita, a Picasso and a Gleizes revert to the descendants of the owners–but over 1000 works remain homeless

The Musées Nationaux Récuperation (MNR), the National Museums’ Recuperation, exhibition in Paris, has already turned up owners for three works now hanging at the Centre Pompidou: a painting of two nude women by the Japanese Post-Impressionist Tsugouharu Foujita (1929), a Picasso “Head of a woman” (1921) and a landscape by Albert Gleizes (1911). They constitute a tiny part of the 2,058 works of art returned to France after the war after having been looted from French Jews by the Nazis, and which are still unclaimed and have largely remained in store in French museums. After decades of debate, the French government finally put on display over 987 of the stolen works of art in what most consider a long-overdue attempt to find the rightful owners or their descendants. Opened in early April, this exhibition, has been spread across five major museums in the Paris region (the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Pompidou Centre, National Ceramics Museum in Sèvres and Chateau de Versailles until 5 May).

The Foujita originally belonged to the Schwob d’Héricourt couple, who perished after their deportation. The Picasso and the Gleizes were part of the renowned collection amassed by Alphonse Kann (1870-1948) in his townhouse in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and seized by the Germans. The Gleizes was recovered in the last freight train sent by the Nazis in August 1944 expediting works of art back to Germany. Kann, who later emigrated to London, was too ill after the war to worry about the recovery of his estate. He designated an official representative to pursue the matter with the Direction des Musées de France. Heirs claim that only 200 works out of the 1,202 listed in the inventory were returned. Francis Warin, a great nephew of Alphonse Kann, stated on behalf of the family, “This restitution should have occurred much more quickly...It is only the beginning because we are still trying to reclaim a series of works dispersed across the world: a Rodin in a Danish museum, a large Picasso cubist work, a dozen Braques, a Poussin, a large Manet, works by Degas, Bonnard, Whistler, Delacroix, Courbet and Gericault...”

According to a 1949 law, French museums are obliged to find the owners of the works and many have criticised them for not pursuing this more actively. Many works have been held “provisionally” in French museums for years and this show has caused a chorus of viewers to ask why it has taken almost half a century for them to declare it all.

However, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims restitution “can be more complicated than it seems.” It states that 100,000 stolen works of art were reported after the war by their mainly Jewish owners. Of these, 60,000 returned to France, of which 45,000 were returned to their owners and 10,000 were either sold, loaned to French museums or put in store. Over 2,000 works of art still remain unclaimed. And this does not count those destroyed by the Nazis as “degenerate” and those belonging to the over 75,000 deported French Jews, murdered in concentration camps, who could not return to report their stolen property. During the Occupation, their property was systematically looted, following laws passed by the Vichy government in July 1941.

The French government has come under mounting pressure to compile an inventory of the plundered Jewish property at a time when other European governments are increasingly grappling with the unfinished business of war loot. Minister of Culture, Philippe Douste-Blazy, claimed at the inauguration of the exhibition that this show of “missing” art treasures was a gesture of “openness”. Even so, he asserted, “the term looting is often an improper interpretation of what occurred”. Quai d’Orsay research shows, he continued, that the majority of these works were not in fact “stolen” but “acquired on the Parisian art market during the Occupation by collectors and German museums”.Serge Cwajgenbaum, Secretary General of the European Jewish Congress, said in an interview with the London Times, that he was appalled that the French minister could suggest the works were bought honestly during the Occupation: “It gives legitimacy to everything that happened. Paris was a recycling centre of stolen goods.” The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has urged the French government to send the works on an international tour in an effort to trace their owners before it is too late.

The MNR is compiling an exhaustive catalogue to be published by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, but no publication date has been set. Meanwhile, the Réunion has exploited this opportunity to republish Le Front de l’art, the 1960 memoir of Resistance fighter Rose Valland. It recounts the dangerous work she undertook at the Galerie national de Jeu de Paume, a veritable way-station of stolen art during the war. For information: www.culture.fr (Documentation MNR).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rightful owners emerge for exhibited Nazi war loot'