At Large  February 22, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Looted Works by Impressionist Masters Returned by Musee d’Orsay

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Renoir, Marine Guernesey, 1883

Between 1933 and 1945, millions of artworks and artifacts were stolen as a result of Nazi persecution, especially from Jewish owners, and Nazi looted art cases are still at large. Just last week, The Art Newspaper reported that a Paris administrative court ordered the Musee d’Orsay to restitute major artworks by Renoir, Cézanne and Gauguin. These works were stolen and sold to the Nazis during the Second World War, to the famous art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. 

The d’Orsay’s collection of paintings that are to be returned include two works by Renoir: Marine Guernesey (1883) and a study for his Judgement of Paris, which is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Also to be returned are Gauguin’s Still life with mandolin (1885) and Cezanne’s watercolor Undergrowth (1890-1892).

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Paul Cezanne, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1899, oil on canvas

This complex case has been ongoing for over ten years and all begins with Ambroise Vollard. Vollard was one of the most important art dealers in the twentieth century. He is responsible for the careers of Paul Cezanne, Aristide Maillol, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh, among many others. In addition to befriending these artists, Vollard mounted many of their first exhibitions, published their prints, and collected many of their works. When Vollard died in 1939, he had over ten thousand artworks stored in his country mansion. 

This is where the story gets complicated. After Vollard’s death, his estate’s executor was his brother, Lucien Vollard. Lucien colluded with Etienne Bignou and Martin Fabiani, both fellow art dealers, to steal part of the inheritance. The trio shipped hundreds of works to the United States, but the ship was intercepted, designated “enemy property” and the paintings were stored in Canada during the war. In 1949, a London court agreed to release these works to Fabiani, and the works began cropping up in the art market in NYC. The rest of the works were hid in a bank vault in Paris, overseen by a young Jewish Serb named Erich Slomovic. To make matters more complicated, the works in question today were sold by Bignou and Fabiani to German museums, dealers, and Nazi officers. All of the works in question have been listed on the Lost Art Database for German Lost Art, which chronicles the over two-thousand works recovered in Germany after the war, which have failed to be returned to their original owners.

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Paul Gauguin, Still Life with a Mandolin, 1885, oil on canvas

Fast forward to 2013, when Vollard’s heirs requested the restitution of several artworks that were allegedly stolen by Bignou and Fabiani. In their request, they were met with opposition by the French state for two reasons: Vollard was not Jewish, therefore his property was not seized under the racial laws enforced at the time, and therefore, the circumstances were not clear enough for the state to agree to this request. The German Restitution Laws, a series of laws that were passed in the 150s in West Germany, were enacted to regulate the restitution of lost property and to pay damages to victims of Nazi persecution. Though the laws went through a series of updates and improvements, they worked to return the art and antiques that were stolen, along with return property that was owned by German Jews. As the war went on and the Holocaust was in full force, the crimes escalated in 1939 as Jews in Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were isolated, deported, and stolen of all property before their deaths in concentration camps. 

In the case of Vollard, a magistrate eventually agreed and ruled that any work recovered in Germany after the war must be returned to the original owner even if it was not looted by the Nazis. Just as the German Restitution Laws were updated, so too could the laws today be flexible to help get property back to its rightful owners.

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The interior of Musée d'Orsay

In May of last year, another court confirmed that these artworks were Vollard’s property and were stolen at the time of his death. The judgement was upheld by another court in November 2022, and today, almost ten years later, the administrative jurisdiction formally endorsed the restitution. In a country that is often resistant to restitution cases, Ambroise Vollard’s heirs obtained a victory. Unfortunately, because this case took so long, two of the heirs have passed away since 2013. 

But there is still work to do: the remaining heirs are still requesting restitution from Vollard’s original collection. These include two Renoir paintings of a bouquet of roses and a group of bathers, as well as a Cezanne work of an old man’s bust.

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