Looted Nazi Art on Show in Paris

EJP 27 June 2008

PARIS (AFP)---Paintings looted from the homes of French Jews who fled Nazi persecution or were deported to death camps are on display in Paris in a major show on the tens of thousands of artworks seized by the German occupier during World War II.

Fifty-three works, including many whose pre-war owners were never traced, form the core of the exhibition entitled "Looking for Owners", which charts the systematic looting of Jewish art under France's pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

A woman looks at a painting by Max Ernst named "Fleurs de coquillages", displayed at Paris' Museum of the Art and History of Judaism on June 23, 2008 in Paris, during the press presentation of an exhibition called "Looking for Owners". This exhibition displays 53 pieces, most of them being treasured paintings looted from Jewish homes by Nazis in occupied France, a sample of the thousands of artworks amassed by Germany during World War II

Between 1940 and 1944, German forces seized an estimated 100,000 paintings, artworks, tapestries and antiques from the homes of French Jews, stripped of their rights by the racial laws enforced by the collaborationist government.
"France was occupied. Jews were considered enemies of the Reich and were being further bled by the Vichy laws," explained Laurence Sigal-Klagsbald, head of the Museum of the Art and History of Judaism hosting the show, which travelled earlier this year to Jerusalem.
"They had absolutely no legal protection."
The Nazi occupiers "were acting within the law," said curator Isabelle le Masne de Chermont. "The French had stripped their Jewish fellow citizens of their rights. They (the Germans) jumped at the chance."
Works on show in Paris also include a string of masterpieces that were snapped up by German museums and collectors eager to profit from the strength of the Reichmark at the time, in sales declared null and void after the war.
Portraits by French 19th-century masters Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres hang alongside a hunting scene by the impressionist Claude Monet or a nude by Gustave Courbet.
After 1945, defeated Germany was ordered to return all art acquired from occupied territories, whether looted or purchased at sale or auction.
Some 45,000 of the 60,000 artworks handed over to the French state were restored to their rightful owners by 1949, following painstaking analysis of Nazi inventories by Allied experts.
Of the rest, 13,000 lesser pieces were sold. The remaining 2,000 were taken into the care of France's national museums recovered works section, the MNR, which supplied the 53 works on show in Paris.
Much of the MNR's collection is known to have been seized from Jewish homes, based on official Nazi records and stamps, but either the rightful owners have yet to be traced, or they donated the works back to the state. The rest are works sold in wartime and returned after 1945.
Groundbreaking report
Organised with help from France's culture and foreign ministries, as well as the Louvre and Pompidou museums, the exhibition follows a recommendation by a groundbreaking 2000 report on the wartime looting of French Jews.
For Le Masne de Chermont, the project "is in line with French policy since the late 1990s, which has sought to expose the full extent of the lootings. We wanted to know.
"We used the recovered works collection as a kind of relic of the artworks that returned from Germany."
Alongside the paintings, photographs and archives show how the Nazis meticulously looted homes after their Jewish occupants fled or were deported, including some 38,000 in Paris alone.
Barely weeks after France's surrender to the Nazis in June 1940, the German embassy ordered a first swoop on major Jewish art targets, including the prestigious collections of the Rothschild banking dynasty.
Within months a dedicated body set up by Adolf Hitler, the ERR, was orchestrating the systematic looting of Jewish-owned art collections, stockpiling them in the Paris Louvre and Jeu de Paume museums, and sending home some 138 train wagons packed with an estimated 22,000 artworks.
In 1942 a second body, the Dienststelle Westen, began clearing out Jewish homes of everything from furniture and crockery to artwork.
The 2000 report on the lootings urged France to take a fresh look at unclaimed artworks to try to trace their rightful owners, leading to the return of 40 new works since 1999.
It also led the French state to pay a sum equivalent to the proceeds of the 1950s sale of recovered works, towards a newly-created Holocaust Memory Foundation.
"Looking for Owners," which runs until October 26, at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris 3d district paves the way for a Paris conference on September 14-15 on international efforts to track down and return looted World War II property.
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme is located on 71, Rue Temple.
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