France to hand back artworks stolen by Nazis

France will on Tuesday return three paintings seized by the Nazis to their rightful owners, just the tip of an iceberg in a country where nearly 2,000 such artworks remain unclaimed.

France to hand back artworks stolen by Nazis
France is to return another three paintings stolen by the Nazis to the rightful owners. Photo: Simo0082/Flickr

All works of art identified as having been stolen by the Nazis are kept in French museums that are required to report them and put them on display in the hope that the previous owners, their heirs or assignees will spot and claim them.

Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti will return the three paintings – "Mountain Landscape" by Flemish artist Joos de Momper (1564-1635), a "Portrait of a woman" oil canvas dating from the 18th century and a "Madonna and child" painting – in an official ceremony.

"Mountain Landscape" belonged to Baron Cassel van Doorn, a non-Jewish Belgian banker who had homes in France and whose possessions were confiscated by the Nazis in December 1943.

The painting had been housed in a museum in the eastern city of Dijon.

The "Portrait of a woman" canvas was kept in one of the wings of the famed Louvre museum in Paris, and could be the copy of a portrait of an 18th century actress by French artist Louis Tocque.

The artwork belonged to art dealers from Berlin, and was auctioned off in January 1935 as part of the public sale of Jewish goods.

The last painting was seized in June 1944 in the southern French city of Cannes by the Nazis, and is claimed by the great-granddaughter of a banker who owned the artwork.

So far, France has only managed to return 70 pieces of art that were seized by the Nazis to their owners.

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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.