France Returns Paintings To Rightful Owners 68 Years later

By Marilyn Z. Tomlins.

On Tuesday, March 19, France returned seven paintings, part of the Nazis’ Second World War loot, to its rightful owners.

So began the beginning of the end of a very painful episode for France and the French: the spoliation of the property of those who were Jewish – French nationals and non-French – in France when France and England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

Six of the seven paintings were handed out in a short and moving, yet happy, ceremony at France’s Culture Ministry to Boston resident Tom Selldorff, 84. When war broke out the paintings which included ‘Portrait of Barolomeo Ferracina’ by the Venetian portrait painter Alessandro Longhi (1733-1813) and ‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by the Italian baroque painter Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) were the property of Austrian-born Jewish industrialist and art collector Richard Neumann. Mr Selldorff is the late Mr Neumann’s grandson.

Mr Neumann and his wife, the couple having fled Nazi Austria for what they thought would be safety in France, had, on France’s June 1940 capitulation to the Nazi Third Reich and the German Occupation which had followed, sold their collection of paintings for a fraction of its value in order to have cash to finance their flight from France. For the first part of their journey from Paris across the Pyrenees and into Spain the couple had often been on foot. From Spain they had continued on to Cuba by ship.

The size of the Neumann war-time collection is not known but it included works by another three Italian baroque painters, Gaspare Diziani (1689-1767), Francesco Fontebasso (1707-1769) and Gaetano Gandolfi (1734-1802), and the Austrian baroque painter Franz Xaver Palko (1724-1767). Today, such an art collection would be worth very many billions of dollars.

The seventh painting, ‘The Halt’, by the Dutch baroque painter Pieter Jansz van Asch (1603-1678) was handed to the heir of its World War Two owner, the Prague Jewish banker Josef Wiener who had died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp after having been rounded up by the Gestapo. Mr Wiener’s wife had succeeded in fleeing to London where she had remarried and in 2000 her son by her second husband had begun searching for the painting in Germany. In mid-2000, he had traced the painting to Paris as Germany had erroneously handed it over to France and, as the French could not find the painting’s rightful owner, it was hung in the Louvre. It was however only in 2012 under

President Nicolas Sarkozy that France had been satisfied that the painting had been the property of the late Mr Wiener and had agreed to return it to his descendant.

Normally, those – not always were they Jews – who wished to flee France and wanted to sell their possessions were directed to potential buyers by colleagues, neighbors and friends or by relatives to men in the milieu – criminal underground – or to collaborators (collabos.) Often those in the criminal underground were collaborators.

Those buyers drove hard bargains, virtually stealing the works of art, because they knew that the sellers were desperate men and women – desperate to stay alive – and needed cash to finance their flight.

They also knew that there existed a lucrative market for such artwork.

Adolf Hitler was planning a museum in his native town of Linz in Austria and needed artwork. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was building up his own private collection of stolen artwork: at his arrest by the Allies in 1945 he had a personal collection of 1,500 pieces then estimated to be worth $200 million. Even the rank and file Wehrmacht soldier was not beyond wishing to take a beautiful ‘souvenir’ from France home to his family.

Said Mr Selldorff on Tuesday on having received back the six paintings: “I am extremely grateful and very moved. These paintings were in this fog of war. The restitution … was not easy. It took a long time.”

Mr Bruno Saunier, Director of Art Collections of France’s Ministry of Culture, added that France’s chance of finding the heirs (after 68 years it would have to be the heirs as the owners would no longer be alive) of the other stolen artworks is slim.

“A lot of time has passed, but we have to give it a try,” he said.

It was indeed a long process

No one can know for certain, but it is thought that from Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 when he became Chancellor of Germany and until the Germans’ defeat by the Allies in 1945, hundreds of thousands of valuable works of art were looted in those countries, like France, under the German boot, or were bought at ridiculously low prices from people who had no choice but to sell because selling offered an escape route from Hitler’s concentration and death camps.

In 1945, the victorious Allied nations gathered the looted artworks and where they knew their country of origin they returned the works. It was then for each country to find the respective owner, but as there had been 27 concentration camps in 11 countries (9 in Poland; 8 in Germany; 2 in France; 1 in Austria; 1 in Ukraine; 1 in Latvia; 1 in Estonia; 1 in the Netherlands; 1 in Slovakia; 1 in Czech Republic, and 1 in Belarus) with an estimated 3,053,000 people murdered in those camps and still millions of misplaced people, to return the works to their owners was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Where the Allied nations did not know the country of origin of the work of art the artwork had remained in Germany, either to be stored in the basement of museums or later, once the war dust had settled somewhat, to join displays in museums.

France had received back 61,233 pieces of artwork from Germany and by the middle of 1949 some 45,000 items had been returned to their rightful owners.

What had happened to the rest?

Those which art experts claimed were of very little value – some 13,500 – were auctioned and the money went into the State’s coffers: there was much repair and reconstruction work to be done after those five years of war.

As for the rest – just under 3,000 pieces – those are still awaiting to be claimed. Some are, as in Germany, being stored in the basements of France’s museums. Also as in Germany, others have been put on display in France’s museums. Mr Selldorff’s ‘Portrait of Barolomeo Ferracina’ had hung in Paris’s ‘Louvre’ Museum.

By the rule such looted paintings were hung in France’s museums with an ‘Anonymous Gift’ tag. (It must be pointed out though that not all those work of art in France’s museums with such a tag are stolen works: often a donor wishes to remain anonymous.)

However, to find the rightful owners of Nazi loot, Senator Corinne Bouchoux of France’s Green Party has now stepped to the fore and asked the curators of France’s museums to “show a bit more effort” to identify such looted works of art. She revealed that some of France’s museums have been designated ‘national museums of recovery’ which allow them to exhibit artwork of which the origin has not been established. Such pieces do not though become the property of the State and can be reclaimed by their rightful owners, provided of course that the State has sufficient proof of ownership. France, as a signatory of the December 3, 1998 ‘Washington Conference Principles on

Nazi-Confiscated Art’, is committed to return such looted work of art.

Senator Bouchoux was echoing an appeal which had been made in the German magazine ‘Der Spiegel’ on January 28, 2013 for museum curators to ‘do some soul-searching’ as well as some ‘museum-searching’ to identify such Nazi loot so that the works of art could be returned to its rightful owners, or the heirs of its rightful owners. There are an estimated 20,000 such items – paintings, sculptures, coins, books and furniture still in Germany. The paintings come to 2,300 and they have an insurance value of $81 million (€60 million).

(Link to Der Spiegel article — http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-s-unsatisfactory-approach-to-art-looted-by-the-nazis-a-880363.html )

As a result of Senator Bouchoux’s plea, President François Hollande has set up a committee of historians, curators and archivists to launch a search for the owners or descendants of France’s stash of stolen loot.

At the same time, and for the first time in France, the ‘Shoah Memorial Museum’ in Paris is hosting an exhibition – ‘The Looting of the Jews: a State Policy (1940-44)’ – where visitors can learn of how the German-Occupied French state had encouraged its citizens to participate in the anti-Semitic act of robbing the Jews of their property. The exhibition runs through to Saturday, September 21, 2013. The museum’s curator, Mr Tal Bruttman, told journalists: “It’s a crucial story that’s not been told before.”

In November 1999 France did, after having become a signatory of the ‘Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art’, founded the ‘Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation Resulting from Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force during the Occupation’ (Commission pour l’indemnisation des victims de spoliations intervenues du fait des législation anti-Semites en vigeur pendant l’Occupation). The Commission’s role is to review the claims for compensation submitted by victims of spoliation. In the first two years the commission had reviewed 7,725 such claims and had paid out €26.43 million ($34.21 million) in compensation to victims. This sum included compensation for property requisitioned by the Germans and bank-related spoliation.

France’s Nazi looters

During the Second World War France had her own Gestapo.

At the head of the French Gestapo was a man named Henri Lafont whose real name was Henri Louis Chamberlin. Thirty-eight years old in 1940 when France fell and having done prison for theft on several occasions he was again under lock and key for draft evasion in a jail in Paris.

The French moved him to an internment camp south of the capital and in the camp he befriended two German Abwehr (Intelligence) men and a Swiss national, one Max Stocklin, also with the Abwehr. The three had been interned along with other German nationals living or present in France.

on France’s declaration of war against the German Third Reich.

The four escaped from the camp and, after having laid low in Paris, on France’s fall and occupation they safely resurfaced.

First ‘Monsieur Henri’, as he was to be known, worked at a warehouse for stolen Jewish property which was run by Stocklin, but quickly the Gestapo scooped him up to found a French Gestapo branch. Then, two months after France’s fall, accompanied by Gestapo men he called in at Fresnes Prison south of Paris and chose 27 of France’s most skilled and ruthless criminals, released them and enrolled them in his brand-new French Gestapo which would soon have one hundred men. They were to arrest and torture and also shoot those who opposed Germany – Jew and non-Jew alike – and round up Jews for deportation to concentration and death camps, and – steal their possessions.

At the Liberation of Paris on August 25, 1944, Henri Lafont, confident that his fellow countrymen would never arrest him, retreated to his farm outside Paris and there, on August 30, he was arrested by French Forces of the Interior (FFI) men who were also known as fifis.

Lafont had five million francs in cash in his house and numerous pieces of jewelry and art work.

Put on trial for treason and found guilty he faced a firing squad on December 27 that year. Eight of his French Gestapo cronies were tied to polls alongside him that day and also shot to death.

While he had been stealing from the Jews he had also been stealing from Adolf Hitler by keeping some of the stolen property for himself despite that he and his men were allowed to keep 20 per cent of the stolen works of art as payment.

There were also others who stole from Jews and from those who opposed the Nazis and the Occupation.

One was Dr Marcel Petiot and he did so solely for his own financial benefit. His story can be read in the e-book ‘Die in Paris’ which will at the beginning of April also be published as a paperback.

(link to amazon.com site – http://www.amazon.com/Die-Paris-Frances-notorious-ebook/dp/B00BCRUKXW/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1364209145&sr=1-1&keywords=Die+in+Paris )

Dr Petiot, apprehended in 1944, was guillotined in 1946 for the slaughter of 26 people in the years

1942-44. Fifteen of them were Jews: one a seven-year-old boy. Judging by the amount of human remains found at his Paris townhouse the chief of the police thought that he had murdered at least two hundred. “To be on the safe side, I’ll settle for one hundred and fifty,” he said.

The doctor had ‘sold’ at an astronomical fee an escape route to people who wanted to flee from Occupied France. The escape route was bogus: it had begun and ended at his townhouse. He had slaughtered his victims and had then disemboweled them and cut them up after which he had either burned their remains in an old water boiler in the basement of his house or he had destroyed the remains with quicklime. At a time before DNA and forensics as exists today, it was not established how he had killed his victims, and indeed, who some of them were.

After he had killed them he had gone to the homes they had abandoned and had carted away their belongings: art work, furniture, books, household equipment and even clothes.

After his death on the guillotine his wife and teenage son left France and settled in a South American country where they lived in luxury.

It is highly doubtful though that what this man had stolen during the years of the Second World War would ever be found and returned to the descendants of his victims.

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