Arts and Design

French National Assembly approves return of 15 Nazi-looted works—including paintings by Chagall and Klimt—to Jewish heirs

Fifteen works by artists such as Marc Chagall and Gustav Klimt looted by the Nazis will be returned to the heirs of Jewish families after the French National Assembly approved the mass restitution earlier this week. 

Klimt’s Roses Under the Trees (around 1905), housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, will be removed from the museum collection after the French government announced the launch of the restitution procedure last March. The painting was acquired by the Jewish Austrian industrialist and collector Viktor Zuckerkandl in 1911. 

After Zuckerkandl and his wife Paula died, it was bequeathed to his niece, Eleonore “Nora” Stiasny. She was forced to sell it for a bargain sum in August 1938 to Philipp Häusler, a professor acquaintance who was a Nazi party member. Four years later, Stiasny and her family were deported and killed by the Nazis. The French state acquired the painting for the future Musée d’Orsay in 1980 from Galerie Peter Nathan in Zurich. Works housed in the Louvre and the Compiègne Castle Museum in northern France are also due to be returned.

Last year, the Ministry of Culture announced that four works on paper in the Louvre by artists including Paul Delaroche and Auguste Hesse would be returned to their owners. Research revealed that these works were purchased in 1920 by the Egyptian-Jewish collector Moïse Levi de Benzion who died in La Roche-Canillac (Corrèze) in 1943. 

“Like hundreds of other works, they were stolen from him in November 1940 at his Château de la Folie in Draveil (Seine-et-Oise, present-day Essonne) by the Nazi organisation responsible for the looting of works of art,” the ministry said (it is unclear if these works are part of the 15 pieces due to be restituted).

A painting by Chagall, entitled Le Père, in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, was acknowledged as the property of David Cender, a Polish-Jewish musician who arrived in France in 1958. 

In a statement, the French culture minister, Roselyne Bachelot, said that keeping the 15 works was “a denial of the humanity [of these Jewish families], of their memory, of their recollections”. The French Senate is expected to endorse the bill on 15 February.

The restitution move is part of the French culture ministry’s broader mission since 2019 to identify works seized from the Jews by the Nazis that have since entered its institutions. Thirteen of the works were, for instance, identified by the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation, a state body created in 1999. Last year at the Musée d’Orsay, Bachelot said: “We have made good progress, 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.”


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