Hunting for Looted Art in Paris

New York Time 20 November 2010
By Sara Houghteling

IN Room 38 of the Louvre’s Richelieu Wing hangs “The Astronomer” by the Dutch master Jan Vermeer. It is an exquisite painting. The stargazer sits before a celestial globe, his fingers spanning the constellation Pegasus. He wears a teal Japanese silk robe, a style favored by Dutch burghers in the late 17th century. He is lost in thought and bathed in a golden light.

Of course we can’t see the back of the painting. But if we could take it down from the wall and turn it over, we would find the spot where a small black swastika was stamped by Nazi curators after it was stolen from Édouard de Rothschild, a Jewish collector whose art had been coveted by Hitler since before the start of the war.

“The Astronomer” is but one of thousands of pieces of artwork in Paris that carry such a history. France was the most looted country during World War II, with over one-third of all privately owned art stolen. Seventy years after the fall of Paris, it is still possible to follow a trail of the city’s looted treasures, many of which have been recovered and returned to museums and collections all around the city.

In 2001 I visited Paris as a graduate student, with a plan to research this story of Nazi art theft for a novel. I can still recall a day when I stood in the Louvre’s Grand Gallery amid a mob of tourists. Only that morning I had been reading the autobiography of the Louvre curator and Resistance hero Rose Valland. In it, old black and white photographs showed the museum in late summer of 1939. The Louvre was shuttered, the great hall emptied of its Leonardos and Mantegnas and giant Veronese.

The museum had just been evacuated following fears of a German attack. Empty picture frames lay on the floor and pedestals stood vacant. “The great gallery looked like a gigantic lumberyard,” Lynn Nicholas wrote in her magnificent “Rape of Europa,” my guidebook to the war years during my research.

Although the Louvre was never bombed, many of the most famous paintings on display today underwent rescues straight out of a wartime thriller. Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” had to be transported out of Paris in a scenery truck from the Comédie-Française theater, while the three-ton “Winged Victory of Samothrace” was wheeled down a steep staircase, her giant wings trembling. (They were both returned to the Louvre at war’s end, unscathed.)

The “Mona Lisa” left Paris on a stretcher, in an ambulance specially fitted with extra shocks. Curators communicated about her whereabouts via coded messages broadcast on the BBC. Only when they heard “ La Joconde a le sourire” (“The Mona Lisa is smiling”) did they know Da Vinci’s masterpiece had arrived safely in the first of many hiding places in the south of France.

When German forces occupied Paris, Hitler left what remained of France’s national museums untouched. Jewish collectors, though, fared far worse. Hitler, who fancied himself a great art aficionado and planned a huge “Führermuseum” in his hometown of Linz, Austria, had long desired particular pieces from private Jewish collections. And when Paris fell, he quickly set about seizing them.

When I met him in 2005, Philippe Kraemer, an antiques dealer, recalled listening to the radio in hiding and realizing that his parents’ gallery had been emptied, then taken over by the Nazis for use as the headquarters for an anti-Semitic newspaper, Le Pilori. When Mr. Kraemer returned to Paris, he found only a few of his family’s pieces adrift on the teeming art market. He bought back what he could. Today, his son Laurent says it took his father 20 years to rebuild the gallery, piece by piece, “starting with the chairs.”

Fine antiques like the Kraemers’ were coveted by Nazi higher-ups, and usually went straight to officers’ collections or to Parisian collaborators. Modern art, however, met a different fate. Some of the most important modern art dealers in Paris were Jewish, including the Bernheim-Jeune brothers, who represented Matisse, and Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso.

Over the years, I made several pilgrimages to 21, rue de La Boétie, Paul Rosenberg’s former home and gallery. It was once filled with works by not just Picasso, but André Masson and Marie Laurencin, both little known before Rosenberg took a risk in championing their art. Today, most of the building is occupied by the offices of a water treatment company.

Marianne Rosenberg, the art dealer’s granddaughter, wrote by e-mail to me recently of her own visit:

“I felt quite estranged there under the eyes of the receptionist who said that things must have changed a lot since my grandparents’ time. It was a little sad to me that she sat there, unaware (and, it seemed, uncaring) that some of the most important artworks in the last century hung there and that history of a sort had been played out there as well.”

Modern collections like Paul Rosenberg’s were seized and sent to the Jeu de Paume, the Impressionist art museum, which Germans had set up as a “warehouse” for looted art. Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command, visited the Jeu de Paume some 20 times over the course of the war, often in total disregard for important military maneuvers elsewhere. (His first visit was just days after his Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain.) Although he had little interest in the modern pieces, which he considered “degenerate,” he used them to barter for Old Masters.

After the war, thousands of pieces were recovered, in salt mines and in the palaces of Nazi officials. With so many families having perished in the Holocaust, much of what was salvaged was never reclaimed. These were paintings whose owners could not be found, many of whom perished in the Holocaust. The fate of this art varied. Most pieces were auctioned off in 1954, while others, those deemed important to France’s artistic heritage — canvases and drawings by the likes of Daumier, Degas and Dürer — were reincorporated into the country’s national collections.

Many such pieces remain in Paris today. It takes a close examination, but they can be distinguished by three letters on the accompanying wall text: MNR, for Musées Nationaux Récupération, France’s anonymous painting collection.

By the French government’s count, there are 1,008 of these works at the Louvre alone. There’s Boucher’s stormy “La Fôret” (MNR 894), a Chardin still life (MNR 716), and a tempera-on-wood “Annunciation” by Solario (MNR 256). The golden-hued Rubens triptych “The Erection of the Cross” (MNR 411) was recovered from Linz, where it had been stored in preparation for Hitler’s museum. There are ecstatic Delacroix dancers (MNR 143) and a mournful Géricault lion (MNR 137), whose owners, like all the others, have never been found.

Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful museum in all of Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, the former home of a family of Ottoman-French Jewish art collectors. Unlike so many other collections owned by Jews, this one remained untouched. In a twist of fate, the family donated it to France before the war, and so it was incorporated into the same union of museums as the Louvre. This saved the extraordinary art inside, yet could not protect the Camondos. A memorial plaque outside the museum tells of the family members killed at Auschwitz.

At first, there’s little in the museum to indicate this tragic end. Frothy pastoral scenes line the walls of the Salon des Huet. Sèvres porcelains, painted with exotic birds, seem too exquisite for actual use. Catherine II of Russia’s silver service is set out on the table, as if the family were expecting guests for dinner. My favorite room is the kitchen, with its array of copper pots in every size.

It’s on the museum’s top floor, with its rotating exhibitions of family documents, that one can conjure what was really lost: the people who ate here, who posed for photos in their school uniforms, who strolled along the dusty paths of the Parc Monceau outside, and who loved the art inside.
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