France is set to return 15 works of art sold under duress to or looted by the Nazis to their rightful Jewish owners, reports Tessa Solomon for ARTnews. The French National Assembly unanimously adopted the bill last Tuesday, and the Senate is expected to approve it on February 15.
The Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation (CIVS), created in 1999, identified the beneficiaries of the original owners of 13 of the 15 works, according to the Times of Israel.
During a parliament session, French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot described the bill as historic. “It's the first time since the post-war period that the government is showing a legal commitment towards the restitution of pieces from public collections,” she said, according to CNN’s Xiaofei Xu and Camille Knight. In a post-vote statement, Bachelot added that France’s continued retention of the art was “the denial of the humanity [of these Jewish families], their memory, their memories.”
Since 2019, France has been making a concerted effort to return Nazi-looted artworks to their rightful owners. The state-sponsored CIVS identified 13 of the works involved with the bill, writes Gareth Harris for The Art Newspaper. Last year, the Ministry of Culture announced four works in the Louvre would be returned to the family of Egyptian-Jewish collector Moïse Levi de Benzion.
Per CNN, the artworks in the bill include pieces by Gustav Klimt, an Austrian Symbolist painter, and Marc Chagall, a Belarusian-born French modernist. The paintings are currently exhibited at five different locations in France, including Paris’ Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. Chagall’s Le Père (The Father, 1922), currently in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, has been recognized as the property of Polish-Jewish musician and luthier David Cender, who immigrated to France in 1958, according to the Times of Israel. The painting was looted from Cender and entered the national collection in 1988.
Klimt’s Rosiers sous les arbres (Roses Under the Trees, 1905) has been in the Musée d’Orsay’s collection since 1980 and is the artist’s only work in France’s national collections, reports CNN. That painting has been identified as the rightful property of the relatives of Austrian-Jew Eleonore “Nora” Stiasny, who inherited the painting in 1927 upon the death of her uncle, industrialist and art collector Viktor Zuckerkandl, reports ARTnews.
Following the Nazi regime’s annexation of Austria, Stiasny was forced to sell the work in 1938 for far less than its value at 400 Reichsmark—roughly $1,000 at the time or around $20,000 today—to Nazi party member Philipp Häusler, the short-term director of the Vienna School of Applied Arts. She and her family were deported by the Nazis four years later and killed in Poland, per ARTnews. Häusler smuggled the work into Frankfurt where it remained in his private collection for the remainder of his life. The Musée d’Orsay acquired the painting in 1980, when it was purchased by the French government from Zurich’s Nathan Peter Gallery.
Currently, 12 of the 15 artworks included in the bill are housed in the Armand Dorville Collection at the Louvre. Dorville, a prominent French-Jewish lawyer and collector, had fled Paris during World War II after the city fell to Nazi occupation, as reported by Vincent Noce of The Art Newspaper last July. Upon his death in 1941, his collection of art and literature was put up for auction; the French government purchased those works in 1942 in Nice, France. Since then, an ongoing legal battle has unfolded between the French government and Dorville’s descendants over whether the original sale was forced or not. The family requested the restitution of 21 works.
Bachelot tells CNN that the auction was organized by Dorville’s heirs, but was monitored by the Vichy regime, a French collaboration government set up by the Nazis. France’s advisory body claims the sale wasn’t forced, so the works can’t be restituted. The state has offered to return the 12 works covered by the bill in exchange for reimbursement of the purchase price; the Dorville family is contesting this decision.
“We have made good progress,” Bachelot said last year at the Musée d’Orsay, per The Art Newspaper, “but we still have a lot to learn about the itinerary of the stolen goods, about the origin of the works of our museums or about that of the goods circulating today in the art market.”