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France feels embarrassed with looted paintings

Auschwitz, René Huyghe, Fracne, Paris

Oped

France feels embarrassed with looted paintings

A four-day auction of sculptures and drawings from “the cabinet of a Parisian art lover by Degas, Delacroix, Renoir and Rodin was huge embarrassment to France as the administrator monitoring the sale, appointed by the French collaborationist Vichy regime, and René Huyghe, a paintings curator at the Louvre, knew the real identity of the art lover: Armand Isaac Dorville, a successful Parisian lawyer. They also knew that he was Jewish.

Following Hitler’s armies invading and occupying Paris in 1940, the Vichy government began to actively persecute Jews. Barred from his law practice, Dorville fled Paris to the unoccupied “free zone” in southern France. He died there of natural causes in 1941.

The Louvre’s Huyghe bought 12 lots from Dorville’s collection with government funds on behalf of France’s national museums, and the Vichy authorities seized the proceeds of the entire auction under 1941 “Aryanization” laws that allowed it to take over personal property owned by Jews. Two years later, five of Dorville’s family members were deported and perished in Auschwitz.

According to The New York Times report, the full history of the Dorville auction might have remained secret had it not been for Emmanuelle Polack, a 56-year-old art historian and archival sleuth. The key to her success in discovering the provenance of works that suspiciously changed hands during the Nazi Occupation was to follow the money.

France has faced criticism that it lags behind countries like Germany and the United States in identifying and returning artworks looted during the war years, and, recently, the Louvre has sought to turn its image around. Its goal is to find and encourage the descendants of the works’ original owners to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

“For years I cultivated a secret garden about the art market during the Occupation,” Polack said in an interview. “And finally, it is recognized as a crucial field for investigation”.

In 2020, Jean-Luc Martinez hired Polack as the public face of the museum’s restitution investigations. “When he offered me a job, I said to myself, ‘No, it’s not possible,’” she said. “And then, suddenly, I found myself working in the heart of the Louvre’s collections. It is truly an honor”.

In March, the Louvre put a catalog of its entire collection online — nearly half a million artworks. There is a separate category for a mini-collection of more than 1,700 stolen artworks returned to France after World War II that the museum still holds because no rightful owners have come forward. Other French museums hold several hundred more works.

Their presence is still an embarrassment for France. After World War II, about 61,000 stolen paintings, sculptures and other artworks were returned; the postwar government swiftly turned over 45,000 of them to survivors and heirs, but sold thousands more and kept the funds. The ones that remain in French museums are sometimes known as the “orphans”.

Nearly eight decades after the auction, the consequences of the sale in Nice continue to haunt France, pitting the French government against Dorville’s heirs, reviving the ugly history of the Louvre’s involvement in a problematic sale and putting Polack in an uncomfortable position.

Dorville’s heirs contend that the sale of his artworks was forced under the wartime anti-Jewish laws, making it an illegal act of “spoliation” or looting. They argue that, had the government given them the proceeds from the auction, perhaps the five family members who perished at Auschwitz might have found a way to survive.

Polack has long supported the family’s position. In a 2017 Le Monde article, she called the Dorville auction “one of the main sales from looting carried out by the French in World War II”.

The French government, by contrast, relying largely on gaps in the evidence about how the auction came to be, arrived at a different conclusion.

In May, the government accepted the findings of the commission that examines reparation claims from victims of wartime anti-Jewish laws, which declared that the Dorville auction was carried out “without coercion or violence”.

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Contents published under this byline are those created by the news team of WeeklyBlitz

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