French artworks stolen by Nazis up for auction

Four Old Masters stolen by the Nazis, including Hitler's deputy Hermann Goering, go under the hammer in New York this week where they are expected to fetch up to $1 million, Sotheby's announced on Monday.

French artworks stolen by Nazis up for auction
Several French artworks stolen by the Nazis, including Hitler's deputy Hermann Goering, will go under the hammer in New York. Photo: Mike Clarke/AFP

The paintings looted after the 1940 fall of France were returned to their owners by the Monuments Men, the allied organization responsible for protecting treasures during World War II.

Auction house Sotheby's, where the paintings are on view until Thursday's sale, said two of the works still bear scrawls from the Nazis that document their stolen origin.

Under the hammer as a single lot valued at $300-500,000 are a pair of paintings by 18th-century French painter Jean-Baptiste Pater that were pilfered for Goering's private collection.

The Nazi was Adolf Hitler's right-hand man. He was commander of the Luftwaffe air force and founded the Gestapo secret police.

Sotheby's said the canvases, "La cueillette des roses" and "Le musicien" were stolen from the French branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty after the fall of France in 1940.

They were recovered by the Monuments Men at the end of the war and given back to the Rothschild family to whom they belonged until their current owner.

For $150-200,000 Sotheby's is offering a 15th-century panel, "Triumph of Marcus Furius Camillus" by Apollonio di Giovanni, also stolen from the French Rothschilds.

The Nazis marked the back with BoR 58. According to Sotheby's, the Monuments Men found the painting stashed in a monastery in Bavaria and returned it to the Rothschild family shortly after the war.

The fourth painting is a view of Venice by 18th-century painter Francesco Guardi, valued at $200-300,000.

It was previously owned by French fashion designer and collector Jacques Doucet, but was stolen by the Nazis from the widow of French banker Andre Louis-Hirsch in October 1941.

The Nazis scrawled Hirsch 8 on a wooden stretcher on the back of the canvas before it too was returned to its owners in 1946.

Sotheby's sale comes a week before the US release on February 7th of George Clooney's Nazi-era art thriller "The Monuments Men."

Oscar winner Clooney stars and directs the star-studded comedy-drama based on the true story of a US platoon charged with rescuing priceless artworks from the Nazis during World War II.

The unit portrayed in the film, comprised of seven museum directors, curators and art historians, was tasked with recovering masterpieces behind enemy lines and returning them to their rightful owners.

Clooney co-wrote the script and assembled a cast that includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray.

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Could France sell off its art to pay the debts?

Art aficionados might be appalled at the idea of France flogging artworks from its museums’ collections, but a recent parliamentary report could open the door for unprecedented auctions.

Could France sell off its art to pay the debts?
The Louvre, which is home to thousands of artworks that are gathering dust. Photo: ZoetNet/Flickr

Hundreds of thousands of artworks are clogging up the backrooms of museums across France, the report says. Many have never been put on show and are often in a state of total disrepair.

Guillaume Cerutti, the head of Sotheby’s France, was consulted by the authors of the report for his opinion. He argues that France should move closer to a model used in the United States, where institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) sometimes sell unused parts of their collections to free up resources for the acquisition of more relevant artworks.

Cerutti said something needed to be done to tackle the “grotesque waste” seen in national collections. In the Louvre alone, for example, some 250,000 works are currently hidden away in overflow rooms.

Museums should be given the option of selling works that have been in public collections for at least 50 years, pending a green light from an expert commission, according to Cerutti.

With a new heritage law in the offing this spring, business news site BFM says France should at least consider the prospect of going a step further and selling art to plug gaping holes in the public coffers.

Though undoubtedly controversial, it wouldn’t be the first time France had sold off treasures to prop up its finances.  

In 2013 the Elysée Palace, the official residence of President Hollande, announced it was to flog 1,000 bottles of fine wine to fund renovations. 

Last summer France said it was letting go of a fancy apartment it owned on 5th Avenue in New York, just months after the government sold off its luxurious 18-room ambassador’s residence on Park Avenue for $70 million (€52 million).

In what was perhaps the most divisive transaction of this kind, last month the government faced accusations of treason when it announced plans to sell half of Toulouse’s airport, the country’s fourth largest and home of aircraft maker Airbus, to a Chinese-led consortium.