France returns 15 artworks stolen from Jews during World War II

The French Senate approved, on Tuesday, the return of 15 artworks looted from Jews during World War II, as part of the government’s efforts to speed up the recovery operations.

The vote authorizes the public museums holding the works, including the world-famous Musée d’Orsay in Paris, to hand over the property to the heirs of the original owners.

French Culture Minister Roselyn Bachelot welcomed the “historic” move.

She said it is the first time in 70 years that the French government has taken serious steps to return artworks “obtained in worrying circumstances during the occupation due to anti-Semitic persecution,” she said.

She described the legislation as a “first stage” in returning things “that are still held in public collections – things that should not, and should never have.”

The Senate approved the bill after the House passed it in late January. Now all it takes is President Emmanuel Macron’s signature for it to come into effect.

Thousands of paintings by some of the world’s most famous artists were looted or forcibly seized during the Nazi occupation of France.

Since the end of the conflict, they have been held by public museums such as the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Klimt’s return in 2018, the government set up a special unit to try to track down the heirs of the owners, rather than waiting for their progress, in an effort to speed up the process.

One of the paintings to be returned is “Rose bushes under the trees” by Gustav Klimt. It is currently held by the Musée d’Orsay, and is the only painting by the French state-owned Austrian master.

It was acquired in 1980, but later research shows that it was forcibly sold by Austrian antiquities collector Eleonor Stiasny in Vienna in 1938 before being deported and murdered.

In December, four more looted artworks were returned to the rightful heirs of their Jewish owner.

Watercolors and drawings by French artists of the 19th century were seized in 1940 from businessman Moïse Levi de Benzion.

Until the return of these four works, only 169 works of art have been restored to their owners since 1951 out of an estimated 2,200 works in the French state’s possession.

The French Ministry of Culture estimates that a total of 100,000 artworks were seized in France during the war, when the country was under the administration of the Nazis and a collaborating French anti-Semitic regime.

In November, France returned 26 treasures looted from the colonial-era West African nation of Benin, as part of a separate pledge by Macron to return some artwork to the continent.


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