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Nazi-Looted Art Treasures, Owners Unknown, Go on Show in Paris

1970
1945
Bloomberg 30 July 2008
Review by Jorg von Uthmann

Looting art in wartime was not invented by the Nazis. Yet they were notorious for it.

Adolf Hitler needed paintings and sculptures for his pet project, the biggest museum in the world, to be built in Linz where he had spent his youth. His supporter Hermann Goering's appetite was no less insatiable: He preferred Dutch masters.

Occupied France was hardest hit by the plundering raids. The show at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris gives an idea of what happened in those dark years.

It highlights stolen works whose owners could not be identified after the war. The art is stored in various French museums where it is listed in a separate inventory (MNR, Musees Nationaux Recuperation).

The looting started right after the Wehrmacht had occupied the northern half of France. In the fall of 1940, Hitler created the Einsatzstelle Reichsleiter Rosenberg, named after its director Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologue of the Nazi party.

Its task was to systematically expropriate Jewish art dealers and collectors in France. In 1942, Rosenberg opened a second branch, the Dienststelle West, charged with looking into empty apartments.

The two offices amassed 60,000 works and shipped them to Germany. Paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and other artists the Nazis thought ``degenerate'' were sold or bartered for less controversial works.

Rightful Owners

After the war, 45,000 works were returned to their rightful owners. The rest was auctioned off or destroyed -- except 2,000 paintings, the pick of the bunch, that the French government distributed among its museums.

This is how things stood until the 1990s, when a couple of books attacked the museums for their lack of curiosity. Only then did the question of the paintings' rightful owners come up.

In 1996, the French government set up a commission. The following year, some of the museums organized a show of MNR holdings, and the Ministry of Culture created a Web site for potential claimants: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/documentation/mnr.

The results were meager: Only some 30 works changed hands.

The 53 paintings at the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme, which were first shown in Jerusalem, illustrate different aspects and stages of that almost 70-year odyssey.

Not surprisingly, the best works -- a small Lamentation of Christ by Petrus Christus and a delicious Buveuse (Drinking Woman) by Pieter de Hooch -- were returned to their owners immediately after the war and then acquired by the Louvre. De Hooch's genre scene is a gift from Mrs. Gregor Piatigorsky, widow of the celebrated cellist, nee Jacqueline de Rothschild.

Art Bargains

Another section of the show reminds you of the lively art market in occupied Paris: German museums, profiting from the strong Reichsmark and the predicament of many sellers, bought a lot of works and didn't return the bargains after the war.

Here you find some first-class names, such as Ingres, Manet and Cezanne, though not necessarily represented by first-class works. Courbet's ``Bathers'' were bought cheaply for Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's Foreign Secretary.

The last part of the exhibition tells the story, which came to light in the 1990s, of 28 paintings and drawings by Delacroix, Monet and Seurat. A German officer, whose name is no longer known, was posted to Paris and acquired the pictures. He dispatched a soldier to Saxony with the artworks, where he hoped to pick them up after the war.

The officer was probably killed when the Wehrmacht withdrew from France in 1944. When he didn't show up, the honest soldier entrusted the loot to the archbishop of Magdeburg who, in turn, passed it on to the Museum Island in what was then East Berlin.

Only after Germany's reunification did the dirty little secret come out. The pictures found their way back to France. Most of them are now at the Musee d'Orsay.

The Musee d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaisme is at 71 Rue du Temple, Paris. The show runs through Oct. 26. For more information, go to http://www.mahj.org or call             +33-1-5301-8648       .

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

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