|By Jim Rutledge
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Seventy years ago, nearly 100,000 works of arts and valuable objects were looted by the Nazis from Jewish private collections during World War II across Central and Eastern Europe. At the end of the war, Allied forces retrieved the works and distributed them to various governments, including France, with the hopes that the works would be return to their owners.
Now, five decades later, France is launching a worldwide campaign to find the owners. The government has set up a team of experts and curators to pro-actively track down families and relatives rather than simply wait for them to come forward. The group is using a new computerized database compiled to digital scans of thousands of pages of relevant documentation that had been gathering dust in museum archives.
The seized art occurred between 1933 and 1945 and is considered the biggest art heist in history.
French museums currently hold 2,140 art pieces – all seized by the Nazis from Jewish families. The pieces are scattered across some 57 French museums nationwide. The Musee d’Orsay has 71 paintings and pastels; the Pompidou Centre has 38 works and the Louvre, 678 paintings. The rest are on display in other museums.
Much of the art on exhibit include paintings from famous names such as Cezanne, Degas, Van Dyck, Ingres, Pissarro, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens and Tiepolo. Art experts say that most of the unclaimed works are not of enormous value by today’s art market standards, but Gauguin’s Nature morte a la Mandoline would sell for about $542,000 in auction, while the Etretat Cliffs after the Storm by French artist Gustave Courbet would fetch $263,000. Courbet’s piece has been in Paris’ celebrated Musee d’Orsay on display.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 100,000 stolen art works were discovered after the war and believed to have belonged to mainly Jewish owners. Some 60,000 artworks were returned to France, of which 45,000 were handed back to their owners and 10,000 were sold. Only the remaining 2,140 works need owners.
French authorities in the past have made efforts to track down owners, but the process has been hampered by the absence of documentation. Since 1951, just 103 works of art have been returned to their owners, prompting complaints to the government that officials have been dragging their feet as critics say should have been the government’s top priority.
Three families of the original owners of three paintings have been traced to works on display in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The three works include: Picasso’s Head of a Woman, 1921; Gleizer’s Landscape, 1911; and Foujita’s Two Women Nude, 1921. Historians said the three works came from a looted collection and were marked as being “anonymous gifts.”
After they were reclassified, researchers have now found the three owners.
The Culture Ministry says they will soon return seven looted paintings to two Jewish families who have been demanded their return for several years. The artworks include works by Alessandro Longhi, Gaspare Diziani and Pieter Jansz van Asch.
Researches say the works were slated for a private museum Adolf Hilter was planning for the looted art.
Among the works the French are seeking to return is a Pieter van Asch painting that belonged to a banker from the former Czechoslovakia, Josef Wiener. They have not been able to locate any living relatives.
The octogenarian grandson of Vienna collector Richard Newmann, who has been searching for artwork from his grandfathers collection since 2001, discovered six Italian art pieces from the collection on the government’s website of the looted art. The seven paintings were on a special list of 163 paintings. With Germany troops advancing, Neumann moved his art collection and family to France. Later he sold much of his collection at fire-sale prices to escape France. After the war, Neumann demanding help from the French to reclaim his collection, but he failed. Newmann’s grandson has just been told to come and claim the works.
Authorities are also looking for the owners of a number of sculptures, furniture, jewelry and Greek and Egyptian antiquities, including a 2nd century marble statue of the Dionysus, the son of the Greek god Zeus, and a 3rd century Greek sarcophagus.
One researcher, Muriel de Bastier, an art historian, has been investigating the provenance of several looted items.
One of the most intriguing stolen objects was a 1833 bronze death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte and currently in storage at the Louvre. “We have no idea whether it was taken from a collector during the war or from a museum, or even sold legitimately. It fact,” she said, “We know nothing about it.”
Bastier also said, that unlike the French, the governments of Britain, Germany, Austria and America, have shown a greater effort to track down owners of stolen works.
In an account in the London newspaper, The Telegraph, Bastier said “We have paintings and nobody is claiming them, and we have people claiming paintings, we don’t appear to have. There has been an effort to clear up this mystery. If we don’t do it now,” she said, “Then it will soon be too late.”
France’s Minister of Culture Philippe Douste-Blazy, announced this month that five museums; the Louvre the Musee d’Orsay, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the National Ceramics Museum in Sevres and the Chateau de Versailles, has begun showing 987 stolen works in an attempt to find their owners.
Bruno Saunier, who heads the National Museums’ Agency’s art collections, believes that “the major works they seek to return came from families in Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungry.” It’s thought that many of those Jewish families may have migrated to the United States after the war, to escape the Nazis.
A spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., William Fleeson, released to AntiqueWeek the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs website that lists details on how to claim any of the 2,140 works, a database of the art, claim forms, and other details of the process.
The website is www.civs.gouv.fr/spip.php?rubrique22.