When World War II broke out, Parisian lawyer Armand Dorville owned a collection of more than 450 works by famed artists like Pierre Bonnard, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet. But after the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, the Jewish lawyer was forced to abandon this trove, fleeing to his chateau in the country’s southern “free zone,” where he died of natural causes one year later. In Dorville’s absence, the Nazis seized his collection and auctioned it off in Nice over the course of four days in 1942.
Now, reports Philippe Dagen for Le Monde, art historian Emmanuelle Polack has identified ten pieces from Dorville’s cache in the Louvre’s collections, paving the way for the looted artworks’ return to his great-niece and heir.
Per Dorville’s will, the lawyer hoped to donate some of his collection to French museums including the Louvre and the Musée Carnavalet. Instead, the artworks were split between buyers across Europe, becoming some of the 100,000 artworks the Nazis looted in France between 1940 and 1945.
Around 60,000 of these works were returned to France by 1949, according to the New York Times’ Aurelien Breeden. Three-quarters of the returned works were quickly claimed by their rightful owners; the remainder were sold at auction or categorized by the government as Musées Nationaux Récupération, or National Museum Recovery (MNR). As of February 2018, the Louvre held 1,752 MNR works in its collections.
The canvases Polack has identified as Dorville’s were labeled MNR but had never actually left France. They were among 12 purchased by Louvre curator René Huyghe at the 1942 Nice auction.
“This makes it all the more bitter,” says Dorville’s great-niece, Francine X., to La Croix’s Sabine Gignoux, per a translation. “The fact that during the sale in 1942, the French government of the time participated in the spoliation.”
Genealogists working with Polack and the French government to identify heirs of Nazi-looted art connected Francine to Dorville’s collection in 2016. She is the granddaughter of Dorville’s sister Jeanne. His other sister, Valentine, was deported to Auschwitz with her two daughters and two granddaughters. None returned.
In 2019, Polack curated the Paris-based Shoah Memorial’s exhibition on MNR works. The show featured documentation suggesting that three of the works on view, loaned from the Louvre, were originally part of Dorville’s collection.
In early January of this year, the Louvre hired Polack to review its collections in hopes of identifying items procured by Nazi looting. Her investigation, reports Naomi Rei for artnet News, has revealed eight additional works from the same group of 12 originally purchased by the Louvre in 1942.
Ten of the twelve looted artworks, including four by Henri Monnier, five by Constantin Guys and one by Camille Roqueplan, are currently housed in the Louvre’s collections. One of the three works previously loaned by the Louvre to the Shoah Memorial, a painting by Jean-Louis Forain, is currently in the collection of the Musée D’Orsay. The location of the twelfth work, a bronze by Pierre-Jules Mène, remains unknown.
As a Louvre spokesperson tells artnet News, the pieces Polack identified are the subject of an official restitution claim currently under investigation.
For Francine, attempts to reclaim her great-uncle’s collection are still ongoing. Besides the ten at the Louvre and one at the Musée D’Orsay, two pieces from the Dorville collection were found among the more than 1,000 artworks stashed in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment. A third was sold from Gurlitt to a private collector. Germany returned the three works to Francine on January 22.
In April 2019, the French government established a bolstered task force led by David Zivie of the Cultural Ministry in hopes of streamlining the restitution process.
“It’s also a change in response to a criticism that was justified, even though it is now a bit outdated, that the ministry and museums were, by nature, very reluctant about restitution, because a curator’s nature is to curate,” said Zivie to the New York Times.
Zivie’s task force, rather than curators, will now review restitution claims. Any concerned individual can file a claim.
Since 1951, just 120 of the more than 2,000 MNR works housed at French museums have been returned to the descendants of their original owners. Still, Zevie tells artnet News, the force is almost ready to send its first collection of research to France’s Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation, which will offer an official recommendation for restitution “after some weeks.”