After decades dodging the issue of art looted by the Nazis, France has set up a new mission to find the heirs to thousands of works that have lain unclaimed for decades.
The packers have arrived at the French culture ministry. David Zivie, head of the newly minted Mission for Research and Restitution of Looted Cultural Property, is busy with his team transferring the contents of their desks into boxes ahead of a move to a new location. Welcoming us, he apologises for the disorder and ushers us into a meeting room from which the furniture has not yet been removed, though dusty outlines on the walls suggest the pictures have already been unhung.
Zivie is pressed for time, a reflection of the sense of urgency that accompanies his new post. He has been appointed by the French culture ministry to oversee a task force that will consist of seven people by the end of the year. Their role? To step up efforts to return artworks that were either looted or sold under duress during the Nazi era to their rightful owners.
Tens of thousands of paintings, drawings, tapestries and sculptures were transported from France to Germany by the Nazis during the Second World War. However, in the years after 1945, many artefacts were recovered, brought back to France and restored to the original owners or their heirs. “A lot of good work was done in the postwar years but those efforts then fizzled out,” Zivie says.
Of particular interest to him are the 2,000 works of art that were recovered postwar and brought back to Paris but never claimed. These pieces were entrusted to the Louvre and other public museums across the country. Known collectively as Musées Nationaux Récupération (mnr), not all of them are displayed; those that are on view to the public reveal their provenance with a plaque bearing the words: “Recovered after the Second World War; awaiting restitution to rightful owners”. Three quarters of a century after the war ended, Philippe has decided that the matter must be given a renewed sense of priority.
With only a modest annual budget of €200,000, the obvious starting point for Zivie’s newly assembled team was to build on the work that had already been done. However, he says, a thorough audit of France’s national museum collections is also needed so that, in cases where the provenance is questionable, he and his mission can probe further. Could this mean that there are more looted pieces in French museums than the estimated 2,000 mnr? Zivie shrugs at this suggestion but his body language seems to suggest that this might very well be the case.
Once a piece of art has been identified as having been looted or sold under duress during the years 1933 to 1945, the next challenge the team faces is to set about tracking down its rightful owners – a task which requires the services of genealogists. Some important breakthroughs have been made, which have resulted in works of art being handed over to the living descendants of deceased owners. “Most restitution ceremonies take place at the ministry of culture,” says Zivie. “They are extremely moving. In some cases they involve the grandchildren of the original owners, who were unaware of the artwork’s existence.”
Until recently, consecutive French governments have been accused of dragging their feet on the issue of looted art, while many museums have appeared less than enthusiastic about handing over the mnr works that they hold. However, the establishment of this new taskforce, and the unequivocal mandate that it has been given by the prime minister, send out a clear message: that France is serious when it comes to rectifying these decades‑old injustices.