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New Paris exhibition uncovers trove of looted Nazi art in Louvre

A new exhibition has turned up a hoard of art looted from a Jewish family almost wiped out by the Nazis in the Louvre and other leading French museums.

New Paris exhibition uncovers trove of looted Nazi art in Louvre
Photo: AFP
The show about the booming art market in occupied Paris, when more than two million objects went under the hammer in a frenzy of forced sales and looting, has turned up works by Delacroix and Forain taken from the family by the collaborationist French Vichy authorities.
   
Curator Emmanuelle Polack discovered that the Louvre bought a dozen works seized from the Dorvilles while researching a new book on how Jewish families 
and some of the most important dealers in modern art were plundered.
   
The paintings are still in the French national collection, with three loaned to the Shoah Memorial museum in Paris for the show.
   
Three more works taken from the family — most of whom perished in Auschwitz — have turned up in the Gurlitt hoard of 1,500 Old Masters, Impressionist and Cubist works found in a Munich apartment in 2011.
   
Despite decades of pressure to restore works to their rightful owners, Polack told AFP that there had yet to be a proper audit of the works acquired by the French national collection during the war.
   
“We need to look at their provenance very calmly and scientifically to lift all suspicion over them. It is hugely important that this is done,” she said.
   
France's Prime Minister Edouard Philippe  — who visited the museum Monday — boosted the investigative powers of a commission which awards compensation 
to victims of Nazi looting last year after criticism of the slow pace of restitution more than 70 years since the end of World War II.
 
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe at the Shoah museum in Paris on March 18th. Photo: AFP
 
'Amnesia' 
 
In January, Polack helped return a painting plundered from the home of France's heroic pre-war interior minister Georges Mandel, a man Winston Churchill hailed as “the first resister”.
   
Mandel, who refused to flee to London with Charles De Gaulle after France fell in 1940, was murdered by members of the French collaborationist “Milice” militia a month before Paris was liberated by the allies in 1944.
   
The portrait of a young woman by Thomas Couture was returned by the German government from the Gurlitt trove. 
   
Polack told AFP that the free-for-all auctions during the war “utterly changed” the Paris art market, then the biggest in the world, and has been cloaked for decades behind “a kind of amnesia”.
   
“Major players whose suspect practices helped them flourish during these dark years were rarely investigated,” she said.
   
Some art world dynasties rose during the war while others never recovered.
   
The exhibition shows how the pillage was pre-planned, with galleries sealed off by German troops after the French capital fell in 1940, and the premises of its most famous modern art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, seized and turned into the Institute for Jewish Affairs, which pumped out anti-Semitic propaganda.
   
More than a third of Rosenberg's 162 seized paintings are still missing, including works by Picasso, Degas and Matisse.
 
Photo: AFP
 
Greed and treachery
 
Another legendary gallerist Rene Gimpel, who joined the resistance, was denounced by a rival dealer Jean-Francois Lefranc and died in a German concentration camp.
   
Others were forced to “aryanise” their businesses, like Pierre Loeb, who had to hand over his gallery to his colleague Georges Aubry.
   
But as the exhibition shows, when the war was over Aubry refused to give it back until Picasso — a communist who had remained in France throughout the war — forced him.
   
Polack said she was now working to help the family of collector Armand Dorville, who had given works to French museums before the war and had intended to leave more in his will.
   
“It is not just about getting paintings back, it is about grief and acknowledging the terrible injustices of the past,” she said.
   
“Confiscating art works was part of a process which started with people being demonised, excluded from professional life, then pauperised when their bank accounts were seized before finally being deported for extermination in the camps,” Polack insisted.
   
The paintings they were deprived of could have helped buy their escape, so “they were caught in a trap”, she said.
   
Prime Minister Philippe did not refer to the often drawn-out legal process of restitution during his speech at the museum, but promised to double state funding for the memorial from next year.
 
Polack said she was encouraged by the attitude of the Louvre. 
   
“I think lending the three works to us (for the show) is a very big step and there is a good dynamic. They know the context and they know we need to work together to do everything properly to solve this problem,” she added.

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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