Late this past June, France’s National Assembly gathered to make history. On the docket was a vote for a landmark bill that would facilitate the restitution of artworks in the national collection stolen during the Nazi era. The lone reporter in the nosebleed press section, I watched as deputies rose across the gilded hemicycle to speak of Jewish families lost in the Holocaust and homes stripped of their contents, as the French state administered “aryanization” laws that permitted the plunder and laid the programmed groundwork for the Jews’ annihilation. Then, in a final, almost simultaneous vote, legislators rushed to their seats and expressed their approval by repeatedly pressing in favor on their voting devices. Their decision, a unanimous approval, was displayed on an electronic screen, echoing a similar unanimous vote in the Senate a month earlier. Officially signed into law in late July, the legislation was historic. In a country that has often shied from its complicated past, it is the first law to officially recognize the specific, government-sponsored theft of Jewish belongings in Europe in the context of “antisemitic persecution” committed by the “French state,” alongside Nazi Germany.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve gone from avoidance, avoidance, avoidance, justifications for holding on to Nazi-looted art, the inalienability of works in collections, to unanimous votes,” Elizabeth Campbell, director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics at the University of Denver, told ARTnews. “It’s a sign of tremendous progress.”
The new law is far-reaching. It will allow stolen art, books, and other cultural property in France’s inalienable public domain—even work looted beyond its borders—to be returned to its rightful owners. Like some other European countries, France’s Heritage Code holds that collections in its public museums are shared public property, and therefore “inalienable,” meaning they cannot be sold or removed. The new law provides an exception. In the past, restitution claims had to be addressed by the arduous passage of case-by-case deaccessioning laws, as they were with the February 2022 law that authorized the return of 15 artworks from national museums, including the Musée d’Orsay’s only painting by Gustav Klimt, and one by Maurice Utrillo. That law came years after some claimants received recognition as the works’ rightful owners.
And, yet, the new law was overdue. France and its public museums have long been criticized for decades of inaction at best, and, at worst, and in rare cases, flatly refusing to return artworks to families of Holocaust victims and Jewish refugees who had the misfortune to make claims when these issues were more commonly swept under the rug.
“Basically, what’s happening in France now is that restitution is being made possible at last,” Wesley A. Fisher, research director for the Claims Conference–World Jewish Restitution Organization’s Looted Art and Cultural Property Initiative, told ARTnews. While the legislation comes nearly 80 years after the war’s end, with few directly connected still alive, “most countries have not done what France is doing at the moment,” he said.
Campbell analyzes France’s handling of restitution, along with that of two other formerly occupied European countries, the Netherlands and Belgium, in Museum Worthy: Nazi Art Plunder in Postwar Western Europe. In the book, due out later this year, Campbell describes how all three countries for decades justified holding on to artwork lost by and plundered from Jewish families, when nobody came forward relatively quickly to claim it. The book follows her 2011 work, Defending National Treasures, which questioned the prevailing narrative in France that top curators at French museums, notably the Louvre, had worked heroically to safeguard artwork sequestered from persecuted Jews. Instead, she demonstrated how, despite earlier, successful efforts by some to protect art from Jewish collections, in 1941, museums began opportunistically taking official steps to acquire art from Jewish collections sequestered by the French state under prevailing anti-Semitic law, to fill gaps in their holdings. After the Liberation they returned those works to surviving families, though not always easily.
In an interview with ARTnews, Campbell painted an inconsonant picture of how Western countries have handled WWII restitution, where seemingly proactive efforts are almost as easily countered by examples to the contrary. France is one of only five countries that has a dedicated commission for restitution and research of Nazi-looted art. Others include Austria, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Germany, whose German Lost Art Foundation (DZK) far outdoes its neighbors in terms of funding and manpower. This year, the DZK earmarked €5.3 million for artwork plundered in the context of WWII, versus the €220,000 allotted to France’s commission. However, France lagged behind Austria and the UK—in 1998 and 2009, respectively—in passing deaccession laws that allow the removal of artwork lost or looted during the Nazi period from a collection owned by the federal government without extraordinary legal measures.
“All countries have more work to be done,” Campbell said, pointing to the 44 countries, including France, that signed the groundbreaking—but nonbinding—Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art in 1998. That agreement called for proactive steps toward identifying and restituting Nazi-looted art, but little action followed those promises at the time. The United States’ mostly privately run museum system leaves it up to individual institutions to research provenance, and no strict enforcement mechanism for restitution exists, though in 2016, the country unanimously passed a law preventing US museums from continuing to use expired statutes of limitations as grounds for rejecting restitution claims.
In France, at least 100,000 artworks were plundered from the country’s thriving art scene and Jewish collections. That low estimate includes works sold under duress in France by families hoping to escape, and by government-appointed administrators who oversaw seized Jewish property, auctioning it to willing buyers, including knowing French museums. After the war, about 60,000 artworks were returned from Germany to France by the Allies. Among them, some 45,000 were restituted following requests, but roughly 13,000 unclaimed objects considered less valuable were sold by the state. The remaining approximately 2,200 unclaimed artworks were labeled Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR) and selected to be housed in public French museums. Overlapping with what academics often called the “silent years” or the “trente silencieuses,” referring to the roughly 30 years following the 1950s, only 4 MNR artworks were restituted between 1955 and 1993, because institutions did not seek out their owners, and restitution was not a top priority. That is, until 1995, when journalist Hector Feliciano published The Lost Museum [Le musée disparu], which blew wide open the story of Nazi looting and MNRs (National Museums Recovery registry).
Many interviewed felt that the “silent years” resulted from a deep denial in France about the culpability of the so-called Vichy government, led by Philippe Pétain, as well as a desire to focus on rebuilding and moving on, shared by many Jewish survivors. The regime, in power from July 1940 to August 1944, deported at least 75,670 Jews to death camps. The French silence was notably broken in 1995 by then president Jacques Chirac in a landmark speech, when he became the first French leader to admit the state had “seconded” the Nazi occupiers in their “criminal folly.” Yet even today, a French Resistance narrative persists, originating with General Charles de Gaulle, minimizing the parliamentary-elected government based in Vichy as a de facto fake French entity. The war years, in this line of thinking, were a mere “parenthesis” in French history.
Before the 1990s, “it’s true that France was a little behind [in terms of restitution] and had a hard time looking at that [wartime] period,” Fabienne Colboc, a member of the National Assembly and the new restitution law’s rapporteur, charged with studying and amending the measure, prior to presenting it to parliament, told ARTnews. “Even if it’s difficult … even if we’re ashamed, we need to recognize what the French state did during that period.”
Pierre Ouzoulias, a left-leaning senator whose grandparents and great-grandparents were communist French Resistance fighters, pushed for the new law to name explicitly the French government’s clear role in said Nazi plundering. That effort led to the only major point of debate in parliament, with far-right legislators unsuccessfully calling for references to the French government under Pétain to be labeled “illegitimate,” while earlier versions of the bill skirted the sensitive issue with a jumbled alternative moniker: “de facto authority claiming to be ‘government of the French state.’” Ultimately, the law places responsibility for the spoliation of Jews on “the French State between 10 July 1940 and 24 August 1944,” when the Vichy government was in power, in addition to “Nazi Germany [and] … the authorities of the territories that it occupied, controlled or influenced.” The law is thus the first to name the “French state” responsible for the government-sponsored spoliation of Jews. An earlier law acknowledges “racist and antisemitic crimes” by the “French State,” and another, following the Liberation, invalidates forced sales and spoliation under governments working with or under the “enemy,” including the “government of Vichy,” without mentioning anti-Semitic persecution.
“We can plainly see that France still has not taken time to mourn for what happened under the occupation, with Vichy,” said Ouzoulias, commenting on the debate, and noting that he hopes that, as word spreads about the new law, more will come forward with claims.
After the parliament’s vote, I walked across the Seine River to deliver the news to Corinne Hershkovitch, known as “Madame Restitution.” The trailblazing art and intellectual property lawyer is recognized for securing the return of artworks to heirs of Holocaust victims and refugees via court order, when their requests were refused. Her life’s work was launched by a 1995 meeting with the grandson of Jewish-Italian collector Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, whose collection was seized and auctioned in 1941 in Paris. After the grandson discovered The Lost Museum, he was reminded of how his mother, Adriana Gentili di Giuseppe, who fled France during the war, often told him about a visit to the Louvre in 1950. There, she saw her father’s paintings, and asked the museum for their return. They refused. She asked again and was refused in 1955 and 1961, because the institution believed the sale was valid.
“Those bastards at the Louvre don’t want to give me back my father’s paintings,” Adriana would tell her son, according to Hershkovitch. The works, made between the 16th and 18th centuries, included a Moretto da Brescia and a Bernardo Strozzi. They were labeled MNR, meaning they were not state property, and their owners were unknown. But the political climate was far different then. The restitution of such works today would likely be a no-brainer, particularly given that, following publication of The Lost Museum, and government-led efforts enforced in 2013, researchers have been painstakingly seeking the owners of the remaining 1,800 MNRs of unclear provenance. In 1999 a French appeals court voided the initial sale to the Louvre, ordered the paintings’ restitution to Giuseppe’s heirs, and forced the Louvre to reimburse the family’s legal fees.
On that fateful day last June, I was ushered into a room hung with stark expressive paintings by Algerian-French artist Adel Abdessemed, many depicting migrants and victims of war. Hershkovitch sat at the short end of a long table, and only a few minutes in, threw out any preconceived notions I may have had about her views on the new law. Years of battling the establishment, when it seemed as though no one—not even some leaders in the French Jewish community—felt she should pursue the issue, had forced Hershkovitch to consider the complexities of what comes next.
“Of course [the new law] leads in the right direction,” Hershkovitch told ARTnews, but “I’ve come to a point where the most important thing is not restitution. It’s what remains. The memorial aspect.” She said compensation and an agreement between parties was often preferred. “It’s only in conserving a trace of [history], that we can hope [the Holocaust] doesn’t happen again,” she said.
While Hershkovitch’s restitution cases, which pitted her against France’s most venerated art institutions, were “essential for breaking through the status-quo, and for recognizing its importance, restitution only really has value if done to those directly connected to the person who was spoliated. Now, we are getting further and further away,” she said. “This law is coming so late in terms of all that has happened these last 30 years.”
For years, it was “not in the interest of curators” to question provenance of potentially Nazi-looted works in their collections, Hershkovitch said, echoing similar views by Campbell. The new law is nevertheless part of a “revolution,” she said, in how museums consider provenance. “Questioning the presence of these artworks in museums, is also the questioning of museums themselves, and it opens the door to a new approach to what a museum can be,” she said.
The Nazi restitution law is only the first step. The French government has plans to pass two more “framework” restitution laws, meaning laws stipulating guidelines that allow the deaccessioning of an object from the public domain under certain conditions. The initiative also sends a much-awaited message that President Emmanuel Macron is addressing the growing scrutiny into museum acquisitions, which in today’s zeitgeist, have become fraught and highly symbolic testaments to the nation’s complicated past. The two other framework laws will address the repatriation of human remains—numbering in the tens of thousands in French institutions—and the repatriation of art taken from Africa and other regions during the colonial era. The latter, for which the government has yet to release a bill, is expected to face heated debate and delays.
In a country that has frequently struggled to reckon with its past, the Nazi restitution law still featured hand-wringing by right-wing lawmakers reticent to acknowledge the extent of French wrongdoing. France’s colonial history is an even more sensitive wound, covering centuries and seeping deep into all layers of society, with debates regularly stoked by conservative leaders known to insist on the “positive” aspects of France’s empire of some 60 million colonial subjects. A controversial 2005 law even required schools to teach about the “positive role” of French colonialism; it was repealed amid public outcry. Speaking to ARTnews, Patrick Lozès, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations of France (CRAN), directly linked the “same movement from those who have said that colonialism supposedly had positive aspects,” with what he describes as a “fear” of accelerating restitution to former colonies.
Indeed, there is little guarantee that legislators will come together to pass a framework law for restituting art from former French colonies. Considering how long it took for the state to admit culpability for the Vichy regime, several parliament members said that, while they hope the remaining framework laws receive broad support, few expect it to acknowledge wrongdoing in the context of France’s once vast empire. Ouzoulias, the left-leaning senator, said that while it made sense to justify WWII restitution by linking it to the French state’s responsibility “for the colonial years, we won’t be able to manage it … we’ll have to find other criteria,” he said. “[Otherwise] the bill won’t pass.”
The absence of any similar recognition of wrongs done could lead to a perception of a double standard. Already, Lozès, who has long advocated for art restitution to Africa, argued that a recent government report by disgraced former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez, which proposed guidelines for the third framework law, was a clear “regression” from Macron’s 2017 promise to return “African heritage to Africa.” Lozès called it a “paternalistic” reversal of the much broader recommendations stipulated in a 2018 report. The new recommendations place greater limitations, like ensuring the claimant properly display and conserve the work. “It’s neocolonialism. It has no other name,” Lozès said. “It is a recuperation of the restitution issue by senior officials … and certain members of national museums.”
The lack of consensus around condemning French colonial actions is why Hershkovitch is concerned the Nazi restitution law will further complicate the passage of the third framework bill. In doing so, it could “divide communities,” she said, referring to minorities of immigrant and former French colony backgrounds, as well as Jews, who she worried might be singled out as benefiting from special treatment. Members of parliament interviewed for this story similarly noted the danger of that dynamic, but agreed the laws needed to be voted separately owing to their distinct categories, rather than lumping them into one, three-pronged measure, as Hershkovitch preferred.
“My fear is that there won’t be a law for cultural goods [referred to as African art],” due to controversy, “and that will be a catastrophe,” Hershkovitch said. “Everyone is so happy about this law for the 1933–1945 period … but what are we going to do now for the law on cultural goods? How will we ever be able to go as far?”
Institutional handling of Nazi-era restitution claims has also been subject to skepticism from an increasingly curious public, according to a 2018 report by David Zivie, who heads France’s Mission for the Search and Restitution of Cultural Property Looted between 1933 and 1945 (M2RS). But, Zivie told ARTnews, institutions are making significant, concrete changes, both in steps toward restitution and their thinking. Zivie led a surge of new restitutions, helping bring the total number of returned artworks from France to about 200 since 1950, following the initial 45,000 works returned in the five years following the Liberation.
“There are still some people who feel that when a painting is removed and restituted, it creates a little gap, too much of a gap in the museum,” Zivie said. “[But] that is no longer a very pervasive point of view. I think things are evolving positively, even if not fast enough. … Our role is to be favorable to restitutions, to push and encourage our colleagues in museums to do more research (into provenance) and explain that … any doubt should nevertheless err on the side of the families making claims.”
France began seriously addressing restitution around the late 1990s, similarly to other Western European countries. The Mattéoli Mission launched in 1997 to research the plundering of Jews in France, and to recommend modes of compensation, leading to the 1999 creation of the Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation (CIVS), which evaluates claims, and is attached to the prime minister’s office. In 2013 the government established a group of experts to search for heirs of the unclaimed MNR works, and in 2019, Zivie’s M2RS was formed within the Ministry of Culture.
The new environment in France has provided hope to Oliver Kaplan, who is currently searching for artworks, with the support of the M2RS and the CIVS, from the art collection of Jewish businessman Georges Levy. While Levy was interned in France’s Drancy camp, he wrote a letter to Kaplan’s grandfather, the former grand rabbi of France, instructing him to sell his art and give the proceeds to Jewish victims of war. But Levy was deported to Auschwitz, where he died in 1943, and the Nazis seized the collection. The new French law, according to Kaplan, is part of a broadening awareness on restitution that has helped his family reach agreements on returning some works, without needing to assemble all the hard evidence necessary to prove legal title. But, even so, Kaplan’s efforts highlight how difficult it is to recover such artworks: releasing too much information about the collection might scare private individuals from selling the works.
“We hope when another one of the works is discovered,” Kaplan told ARTnews, “it will be a chance to track down the rest of the collection. Maybe it was kept together, and never dispersed. We just don’t know.”
Meanwhile, museums have begun hiring a small number of researchers dedicated to provenance issues, as educational opportunities in the field emerge. The Louvre led the way, in January 2020, when it recruited art historian Emmanuelle Polack to coordinate the museum’s painstaking provenance research for acquisitions between 1933 and 1945, plus unclaimed MNRs. Thanks to that laborious ongoing detective work, Polack told ARTnews that progress has been made in identifying questionable dealers who may have worked with the Louvre, as well as spotting signs of known, plundered Jewish collections. In her published writings about the French art market during the Occupation, Polack describes the Louvre buying what she deemed spoliated artwork from the Armand Isaac Dorville collection, in an ongoing case. She was also a member of the German task force investigating some 1,500 works found in the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father was an art dealer for Hitler’s planned museum in Linz. Her appointment is an oft-cited symbol of evolution within French institutions aiming for greater transparency.
“In the last ten years or so, we’ve welcomed a small change in mentalities, and I see it in younger audiences,” Polack said. “Young people don’t understand the problem. … They want clean museums, transparent, perfectly clear museums, and, if possible, displays of a work’s provenance.” Polack, who lost family in the Holocaust and is determined to “do this work so my children will no longer need to,” has organized “study days” at the Louvre, in which wartime acquisitions are examined, helping the public “understand that for us, it’s not a problem to confront, without hesitation. We look at provenance,” she said. But in something of a contradiction, when asked what she meant by “the problem,” she indicated that younger generations didn’t understand, Polack stonewalled. “I have a position at the Louvre Museum,” she said. “I cannot revisit old stories. I wasn’t here. I have no judgment to make … what matters to me is to go towards the future …”
I’d been warned by the Louvre press department that Polack could not answer questions that might be seen to compromise her relationship with her employer, likely because of her role in helping the Dorville family’s claim. That view puts her in opposition to the Louvre and several other museums, which remain in a legal standoff with the Dorvilles. French museums, including the Louvre, returned 12 paintings to the Dorville heirs last year in exchange for the cost museums paid for the works. Their reasons for doing so were the “troubling” circumstances around the acquisitions, and that the museum knew about the collection’s Jewish origins, but the CIVS could not confirm it had been looted. The case will be heard in a Paris appeals court this fall and the family, co-defended by Hershkovitch, is asking for the restitution of 9 additional works, including a Eugène Delacroix painting in the Louvre, and an Édouard Vuillard work in the Musée d’Orsay, plus recognition that the initial sale involved despoiled works.
The Dorville conundrum illustrates a gray zone in the new law: it doesn’t spell out the definition of spoliation, which is left to the CIVS. “Even if a painting was paid for at a normal, market price, if the motive of the sale is to escape anti-Semitic persecution, we consider it an item which should be restituted, because it’s a forced sale,” Michel Jeannoutot, CIVS president, told ARTnews.
As it became evident that my talk with Polack would leave some questions unanswered, I ventured one last query about the Louvre’s refusal to return paintings to Gentili di Giuseppe’s daughter in the 1950s. “It was not a time I experienced at the Louvre,” she said, emphasizing her job is to focus on working with the museum now to research art plundered during the Nazi era.
How, then, does one talk about the significance of current changes at museums dealing with these issues, itself inextricably linked to understanding provenance, without discussing, and perhaps constructively criticizing prior management of restitution? While Polack may not be free to publicly address the Louvre’s less glorious chapters, here, again, examining past actions of a beloved public institution, itself a symbol of French culture, is curiously fraught.
I took my questions to the Services des musées de France, which has been examining claims since the 1950s, and was criticized for its past inaction on MNRs. “The manner in which restitution requests are handled has greatly evolved over the last decades, notably since the Gentili di Giuseppe affair … [which] enabled situations of forced sales or sales under coercion to be considered spoliations,” a representative of the ministry said in an email. French institutions don’t always have enough evidence, or “come to the same conclusions as legal heirs” about whether sales were forced, they said. But such legal wrangling remains rare, they added, noting that, of the 184 MNR artworks restituted since 1950, only 10 were returned under a judge’s order. Another 50 were restituted on the initiative of the ministry and museums.
Fair enough. Progress is being made even as the country’s restitution efforts remain a sensitive and complex topic. That point was not lost on Polack, who broke slightly with protocol during our talk, and leaned in with a smile. “I often laugh about finding myself here at the Louvre,” she said. “I’d say it’s the marriage—and you’ll understand—of the carpe and the lapin,” a French expression that describes a mismatch. “It’s a strong symbol.”
A version of this article appears in the 2023 ARTnews Top 200 Collectors issue.