Following a change in the law in France, 15 works worth millions of dollars, looted during the Holocaust and displayed in museums around the country, will be returned to the descendants of the victims
February 17, 2022 Tamar Shevak
Fifteen works of art looted by the Nazis from Jews during the Holocaust will be removed from museum walls throughout France and returned to their legal heirs. Among the works: a painting by Gustav Klimt valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, and a painting by Marc Chagall valued at about 300,000 euros.
The French House of Representatives, the Senate, has voted in favor of a law that allows the heirs of Nazi victims to return works of art looted from them, which today belong to national museums. For years the French Ministry of Culture has been working to locate the owners of the works and now, following a change in the law, they can also be removed from the museums where they were displayed and returned.
This is in fact a novelty in law: since the 1950s, France has returned 178 looted works, 54 of them in the last five years. But according to an ancient ban in France, a work hanging in a museum will never leave the state. The Senate has now chosen to lift this ban.
The law was specifically enacted to allow the delivery of the 1905 masterpiece, “Rose Shrubs Under the Trees,” by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, to the heirs of the late Nora Staysney, who she and her family were murdered by the Nazis in 1942. The work was one of the coveted Musée d’Orsay. “It is impossible to assess the value of such a painting,” said officials in the French Ministry of Culture. “It is a masterpiece”.
Staysney received the painting as a measured gift, industrialist Victor Zuckerkandel, and was forced to sell it for a ridiculous amount to the family’s acquaintance and member of the Nazi party, Professor Philip Hausler, as early as 1938. The French government purchased the painting in 1980 from a private gallery, unaware that it was in fact looted property.
One of those 15 paintings that will now be returned is Marc Chagall’s “The Father,” which comes from the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris, but belongs to the Pompidou Center, which bought it in 1988. The painting, valued at more than 300,000 euros, was robbed in 1940 by the late David Sander in the city of Lodz, Poland, and will now be returned to his heirs who live in Israel.
The French Ministry of Culture emphasizes that unlike other masterpieces found in collections in France, in the case of works returned to relatives, their owners will now be allowed to take them out of France if they so wish. “We are not interested in either the value of the work or what the legal heir will decide to do with it,” the French Ministry of Culture explained. “What’s important to us is to find the rightful owners and hand over the work to them”.
The Ministry of Culture explains that in the past they focused mainly on locating the heirs of the same works that were returned to France from Germany. “Slowly we are focusing on the origin of all the works that came to the museums, from the 1930s to the present and especially between the 1950s and 1980s. Many of the works were returned to their heirs due to family inquiries. Awareness of this is growing”, they said.
The works are returned to their owners sometimes in a public ceremony and sometimes away from the eyes of the cameras. The French Ministry of Culture is holding conferences where heirs recount the moment they regained the memory of their relatives who were murdered by the Nazis. “Sometimes it’s a painful moment”, said one office worker, “but I also remember how a sack of tefillin that came from Algeria and was stolen in France in the 1940s was returned to the granddaughter of the owner, who was also an opera singer. All family history came back to life”.