GENEVA — Swiss law bars a museum from surrendering a 19th-century painting that it was given after it had been stolen from a Jewish family in Paris by the pro-Nazi Vichy French regime during World War II, authorities said Thursday.
More than 40 years after the war, a subsequent owner of "The Valley of the Stour" by British painter John Constable gave it to the city of La Chaux-de Fonds in her will, on condition that the work remain in the local museum, said Remy Gogniat, a city spokesman.
When a relative of the original owner claimed the painting in 2006, the city near Switzerland's western border with France sought two expert legal opinions in the case.
"The first one explains that under Swiss law there is no obligation of restitution," Gogniat said Thursday. The second one concludes that the city is bound by the will of Madeleine Junod, who bestowed the painting along with a series of others to the city in 1986, he said.
Under the will, her collection has to be housed in a specific room of the city's Fine Arts Museum and not to be split up.
"So we don't have the right to return it," Gogniat said.
The painting, which today has an estimated value of around 1 million Swiss francs ($958,000), was confiscated from the Paris home of Anna Jaffe after she died in 1942 at age 90, according to a press release by the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
It was in a collection taken by French Vichy authorities who were collaborating with the Nazis and was auctioned the following year and subsequently changed hands several times.
The London-based Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property says Jaffe, a British Jew living in France, had a large collection of artworks that included paintings from famous artists, such as Goya, Rembrandt and Turner.
"Vichy-imposed laws mandated that all Jewish properties were to be confiscated and sold at public auctions," it said.
The auction took place in July 1943 in Nice, France, according to the registry.
"In 48 hours, the Jaffe collection — one of the most sumptuous in all of France — had been stripped from the family and reduced to cut-rate heirlooms hawked in what was less an auction than a crude flea market," it said.
La Chaux-de-Fonds said the Swiss couple Rene and Madeleine Junod bought the painting as part of a collection in 1946.
On Thursday, the claimant of the painting, Alain Monteagle of Montreuil, France, could not immediately be reached for comment about the city's decision. Its museum will put a plaque next to the painting on the wall telling visitors the history of it, Gogniat said.