France approves return of 15 works of art stolen from Jews – Expat Guide to Germany

The French Senate is due to approve the return of 15 works of art looted from Jews during World War II on Tuesday, as part of the government’s efforts to speed up restitutions.

The vote authorizes public museums holding the works, including the famous Musée d’Orsay in Paris, to return ownership to the heirs of the original owners.

French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot called the decision “historic”, adding that it was the first time in 70 years that the French government had taken serious steps to return works of art “acquired in disturbing circumstances during the occupation due to anti-Semitic persecutions.”

She called the legislation a “first step” to returning items that “are still held in public collections – items that shouldn’t and never should have been there”.

The bill was approved by the lower house of parliament in late January and now requires Senate approval and the signature of President Emmanuel Macron to enter into force.

Thousands of paintings by some of the world’s most famous artists were looted or forcibly acquired during the Nazi occupation of France and have been held by public museums such as the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris since the end of the conflict.

In 2018, the government set up a special unit to try to trace the owners’ heirs, rather than waiting for them to come forward to speed up the process.

One of the paintings to be returned is titled “Rosiers under the Trees” by Gustav Klimt, which is currently held by the Musée d’Orsay and is the only painting by the Austrian master owned by the French state.

She was acquired in 1980, but later research showed she was forcibly sold by Austrian collector Eleonore Stiasny in Vienna in 1938 before being deported and killed.

In December, four more looted works of art were returned to the legal heirs of their Jewish owners.

The watercolors and drawings by 19th century French artists were seized in 1940 from businessman Moise Levi de Benzion.

Until the restitution of these four works, only 169 works had been returned to their owners since 1951 out of the estimated 2,200 held by the French state.

The French Ministry of Culture estimates that a total of 100,000 works of art were seized in France during the war, when the country was administered by the Nazis and an anti-Semitic French collaborationist regime.

In November, France returned 26 treasures that had been looted from the West African nation of Benin during colonial times, as part of a separate pledge by Macron to restore certain works of art on the continent.

Christopher S. Washington