Works Looted By The Nazis: Unanimity In The Senate To Facilitate Restitution Procedures

AFP 23 May 2023

The French Senate unanimously adopted, Tuesday, May 23, a draft framework law intended to facilitate the restitution by public collections of cultural property whose Jews were looted by Nazi Germany.

The text, which will now go to the National Assembly to continue its examination at first reading, concerns any cultural property (art objects, paintings, books, etc.) whose spoliation has been proven between the accession to power of Adolf Hitler on January 30, 1933, and the German surrender on May 8, 1945. The objective is to establish a framework for removing works from museums in order to return them to their legitimate owners or their beneficiaries, without having to use legislation on a case-by-case basis.

“This bill is the first since the Liberation to recognize the specific spoliation suffered by Jews, in France and everywhere, as a result of Nazi Germany and the various authorities linked to it” underlined Tuesday the Minister of Culture Rima Abdul Malak at the opening of the debates during the examination of the text. “Behind each work there is a family history, behind each spoliation there is a human drama. With each restitution, it is an act of justice that is rendered, said the minister.

After the vote of the National Assembly, unanimously, in January 2022, the Senate, dominated by the right, had validated the text of the bill for the restitution of works looted during the Second World War the following month, at raised hand. “It’s a first step [car] looted works of art and books are still kept in public collections. Objects that shouldn’t, never should have been there »said the Minister of Culture then in office, Roselyne Bachelot.

One hundred thousand works of art were seized in France during the Second World War, according to the Ministry of Culture. 60,000 goods were found in Germany at the Liberation and returned to France. Among them, 45,000 were quickly returned to their owners. About 2,200 were selected and entrusted to the custody of national museums, works known as MNR (National Museums Recovery). The rest – approximately 13,000 objects – were sold by the Estates administration in the early 1950s. Many of these works of art thus returned to the market.

Contrary to MNR works, until now the State can only take the initiative to return works that have entered public collections by adopting a specific law making it possible to derogate from the principle of inalienability of these works. collections. The framework law creates a derogation from this principle in the heritage code. The decision to leave the national collections can only be made after consulting a specialized commission.

The victims will be able, if they wish, to negotiate an amicable agreement on the terms of reparation other than restitution. The bill also authorizes the owners of private museums that have received the designation “French Museum”  to return, on the advice of the commission, the property in their collections which was the result of spoliation by the Nazis.

“The Holocaust cannot be repaired, cannot be reconciled”

“If the role of the legislator is not to rewrite history, it may be his responsibility to ensure that certain wounds of the past are healed”said the rapporteur for the text in the Senate, Béatrice Gosselin (related LR). “Returning a painting is not repair, it is justice” for his part affirmed Roger Karoutchi (LR). “The Holocaust cannot be repaired, cannot be reconciled” he added.

In the Hemicycle, the debate focused on historical responsibility. With the Minister’s consent, the Senate initially adopted an amendment by the Communist Pierre Ouzoulias, to clarify the wording and thereby “Clearly show the responsibility of the Vichy regime”.

The last restitution of property looted by the Nazis took place on April 18. These were three works forming part of the so-called MNR assets. A total of 184 MNR and similar works and objects have been returned since 1950.

This bill is part of a work of memory and a policy of restitution undertaken in recent years. Emmanuel Macron has thus promised another framework law to proceed with the restitution of African cultural property, sometimes acquired under questionable conditions. And the Senate will examine in June a cross-partisan law proposal to set the general framework applicable to the restitution of “human remains belonging to public collections”such as the Maori heads returned to New Zealand in 2010.
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